Q: What makes a great film director?
Kathleen Collins (1942-1988) was a renaissance woman. Before her untimely death from breast cancer, she directed, (co-)wrote and edited two gorgeous films, drafted equally gorgeous short stories — culled by her daughter Nina for posthumous collections, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? (2016) and Notes from a Black Woman’s Diary (2019) — and delivered rousing lectures to her students at the City University of New York (CUNY).
A: Collins was a great director because she wanted to produce great stories far more than she wanted to be known for making them, and thus embraced any discipline that positioned her to do so.
Across mediums, Collins’ work bears the impression of natural light. Her feature films, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980) and Losing Ground (1982), capture sun like bottle trees. The Cruz brothers dance through the forest for much of their 54-minute film, reflecting speckled light and youth under the ghostly gaze of their father. Sara (Seret Scott) and Victor (Bill Gunn), the leading couple of Losing Ground, likewise spend much of their hour-and-a-half film wearing daylight — dancing with strangers destined to become extramarital affairs. Collins’ lovingly-edited films immerse you in everyday magic and heartbreak.
Of Short Fiction:
I’m currently reading Notes From A Black Woman’s Diary (2019), and I was hooked from the first sentence of the first story (“Scapegoat Child”): “In the crucible of our family my sister burned like molten steel.” I first read Whatever Happened to Interracial Love (2016) about two years after it was released, excited to consume short stories from a woman with an eye for cinematic tension and atmosphere. Collins expressed a desire to adapt some of her fiction into film, so I wasn’t surprised to encounter literary portraits with moving imagery, and some hybridization of script formatting and prose. Knowing that Collins had originally gone to graduate school for French literature before pivoting to film, I also wasn’t surprised that she maintained a sensitivity to interstitial details, the descriptive transitions that distinguish the minimalistic form of script writing from the probing tendencies of literary writing.
Collins’ storytelling is full, animated and believable. Had her life allowed it, I would’ve loved to see her short stories on screen, with their Black-woman, tour de force protagonists, but I’m thankful to have streamed them in my mind’s eye. My favorite stories from the Whatever Happened collection were all of them, read in concert, though the characterizations of place and person in “The Uncle” were particularly striking. The first sentences don’t bury the lede, trusting that you’ll hang on ‘til the end: “I had an uncle who cried himself to sleep. Yes, it’s quite a true story and it ended badly. That is to say, one night he cried himself to death.”
In the foreword to Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, Elizabeth Alexander (poet-academic) described Sara from Losing Ground as follows:
She would have a palpably infinite inner life. She would be shown teaching, in the classroom, expounding on actual ideas and encouraging her students —who adored her— to do the same.
This description doubles as a biography for Collins, whose fictions mirrored her reality. The intellectual lives of her films, her stories, were just as robust as her own — born of their creator’s body. This is apparent in Collins’ lectures, which have a verve akin to the energy of her written and visual works. Her smooth distillations of film philosophies lay bare the excellence of her craft.
In her 1982 interview with Phyllis Klotman (an Afro-American Cinema Studies scholar), Collins emphasized that film is a language every student must learn and fit to themselves. In her intro course at CUNY, she instructed students with exercises that could have been inspired by her days as a French language professor. She began with the bones (vocabulary, syntax), and had students film scenes with stationary cameras. They then built character with focus lenses and mobile cameras, zooming, panning and tracking to “make statements.” The second semester of the course culminated with students conveying themselves in self-portrait videos.
In her 1984 master class at Howard University, Collins gave a longer view of her formidable teaching skills. Restless and confident, she delivered her vast knowledge of narrative structure, and the trials of producing Black films when Blackness is symbolized as a scapegoat — the “sinner” extraordinaire. She suggests that Black filmmakers can and must push beyond this social confinement, and reclaim their “ordinary existence.” Early on in the lecture, she professed (as if in answer to a future question): “If any of you have seen my work, you know I’m only interested in telling stories.” Collins’ artwork is a success of her purest intentions.
Watch Kathleen Collins’ full 1984 lecture here.