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Weekender Recommendations: The Kathleen Collins Film Canon

Re-seeing Black Hollywood’s Rockland Roots: Rivertown Film Society Hosts Local Premiere of Kathleen Collins’ Film Canon

by Juliana Roth

“She’s a Rocklander,” Sam Waymon, local actor, composer, and brother of Nina Simone, tells me when I ask him about Rivertown Film Society’s upcoming premiere of the late Kathleen Collins’ films, Losing Ground (1982) and The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1980) in the county where they were set and largely made. After growing up in Jersey City, Collins raised her 2 children in Piermont, NY in the 1970s while working as a professor of film history and screenwriting at the City College of New York and as an assistant director for Broadway musicals. Years prior, she trained under John Carter, one of the first Black union editors, which led to jobs with the BBC, Craven Films, Belafonte Enterprises, and the United States Information Agency.

Waymon moved to Rockland around the same time and found a community of artists, including Kathleen Collins (who named her daughter Nina after his sister) and his creative partner, Tappan-based director, playwright, and actor Bill Gunn (star of Losing Ground). Waymon would later perform in Gunn’s film Ganja & Hess (later remade as Da Sweet Blood of Jesus by Spike Lee). “Kathleen was a visionary for women’s rights and artistic freedom. She wanted women to be recognized for their artistic integrity in a world of men. Losing Ground is a testament to that,” he says. Why then did it take nearly 40 years for the film to be widely seen and recognized in the US? 

A History of Exclusion: Hollywood’s Narrow Vision of Black Women

Losing Ground was one of the first feature films directed by a Black woman, centering a protagonist unfamiliar to the mass culture in which Collins produced her work. Sara Rogers, played by Seret Scott, is a complex, intelligent, and sensual Black philosophy professor more interested in researching religious and philosophical meanings than performing a reductive image of herself for the screen or her artist husband. The film emerged in the midst of Blaxploitation filmmaking and new Hollywood cinema, a time where today’s 15% of film directors being Black or female was even smaller. Collins refused to show her characters as marginal or hyper-sexualized as most Black women were depicted in her lifetime, and continue to be.

Her work remained in obscurity until Collins’ daughter, writer Nina Lorez Collins, restored her archives, including the 2 films and a collection of short fiction with a forward by Pulitzer Prize finalist poet Elizabeth Alexander. Losing Ground was called a cinematic masterwork by Richard Brody in the New Yorker, selected for the prestigious National Film Registry’s permanent collection, and was the opening night film in the Film Society of Lincoln Center series, “Black Independents in New York, 1968-1986,” where it continued to play for 3 weeks.

Losing Ground is a Black love story between a couple of intellectuals. And it’s very much an independent film, serving as a testimony to the strength of a remarkable, largely unsung community of artists living and working in Rockland during the 1970s and 1980s: cinematographer Ronald K, Gray (one of her City College students who encouraged her to direct her own scripts), composer Michael Minard, playwright, writer, and collaborator, Henry H. Roth (who was also my father), and director, playwright, and actor Bill Gunn, whose legacy the film society will explore in a subsequent screening, and who I’ll explore in a future article.

While many of the original collaborators, including Collins, were not alive to see the recognition of their work, several of the surviving filmmakers will be present as Rivertown Film Society partners to screen the films with the Nyack Library, Nyack NAACP, the Historical Society of Rockland County, and the Historical Society of the Nyacks. Both films were made available to Rivertown Film Society thanks to their distributor, Milestone Films. The film society and its partners will hold a discussion on Wednesday, February 24th at 7p, moderated by Bill Batson. The talk will include friends and associates of Kathleen Collins, participants in these films, locals Michael Minard, Sam Waymon, and Collins’ daughter, Nina. Tickets for both films will be $10, starting February 19th on Rivertown’s website alongside The Pratt in the Hat, a new short film about Frances Pratt’s tenure as the former President of the Nyack Branch of the NAACP.

Restoring the Collins Legacy

“History doesn’t stand still. It moves, travels, and incorporates all of us,” Waymon tells me. “Like Sam Cooke says, ‘A change is gonna come.’ Kathleen was a very fun, secure, and opinionated person, but it was a struggle as a female writer and director. Still, if you really believe in something, you keep fighting. That change is gonna come.” Collins believed deeply in that possibility for social change. Before she was an artist, she was an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the Civil Rights Movement, likely influenced by her father who, after a career as a mortician, became the first African American New Jersey state legislator. She was arrested for praying in protest on the steps of City Hall, spending time in an Albany jail where she was denied access to books. After studying French literature at the Sorbonne in 1966, Collins fell in love with film when she took an adaptation class.

Collins planted the seeds for Losing Ground’s themes of representation, feminism, and aging in her first film, The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy, based on friend and lifelong Nyack resident Henry H. Roth’s comic novel The Cruz Chronicle, which follows 3 rambunctious brothers as the ghost of their late father guides them. Set in Haverstraw and shot in the former Bennett-Deyrup mansion, the film follows an aging widow who enlists the men to “restore” her Victorian Hudson River home. The disheveled house in which the brothers live in the film remains intact on a quiet lane near the Sparkill Creek.

Seizing the Sounds of Rockland County

“I was actually on the shooting set of The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy only once, I believe,” says Michael Minard, the film’s composer. “I wanted to witness the relationship of the Cruz brothers so that I could weave it into the score. In the end, the music production, which included many musicians from the largely Hispanic town of Haverstraw, was its own world, the product of which hopefully enriched the movie.”

Minard adds that, “The music of Salsa, with its merengues, montunos, bachatas and rich coros, was in the air, and Rockland County happened to be one of its most vibrant centers. I wrote the song ‘We’re Brothers,’ which was intended to be the theme song of the movie. I had enough experience as a composer, and even as a Latin instrumentalist, to feel qualified to write a song for a movie about Puerto Rican characters.  But to make a credible translation of the lyric into Spanish? For that, I needed the talent of the Dominican musician Tokyo Aybar, who played the wonderful guitar-like instrument ‘cuatro’ on the score (and also sang on the final track). He translated the song, and made it ‘Somo Hermanos.’ We recorded the score at Patrick Poor’s studio in New Jersey: percussion, piano, trombones, cuatro, vocals. It was a wonderful experience recording the music, and it brought all of us–from very different cultures, together in collaboration.” The complexities of racial identity and cultural exchange runs not only through Collins’ lived experience, but also in the film. 

The Original Indie Film Crowdfunding Campaign

The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy began with $5,000 from friends plus a line of credit from DuArt Labs. “It was awful doing a movie for $5,000. It was like going down a terribly long tunnel…But we did it,” Collins shared when asked about the filmmaking. The Cruz brothers were played by Randy Ruiz, who performed in the Broadway musical, “Runaway,” Lionel Pina, who performed in Dog Day Afternoon, and Jose Machado, who was in The Goodbye Girl. Haverstraw native Jose Aybar sang the film’s theme song, “Somos Hermanos.” The only non-local exception was Californian Sylvia Field, best known as Mrs. Wilson on Dennis the Menace, who portrayed Miss Malloy. Still, she had a second degree connection to the county as her son-in-law Mike Kellin was Henry H. Roth’s neighbor. 

The 1980 film won First Prize at Sinking Creek Film Festival, but, like Roth, who was a Jewish writer, Collins was criticized for her choice to make a film on a culture outside of her own, a topic in artmaking that is still debated. The film never found distribution, and essentially vanished after one screening on PBS.

Female Success and the Complexity of Being Seen

Collins wrestled with both the idea of being recognized for her talent and the powerful possibilities of her creativity. In the 1988 issue of Black Film Review, released the year of her death, Collins reflected on her life of artistry: “The nature of illness and female success and the capacity of the female to acknowledge its own intelligence is a subject that interests me a lot… I had just finished a first movie, and knew that I had it, knew that I had the talent. Knew that my own creative power was finally surfacing, that all the years of working quietly, and quite alone, were beginning to pay off…when I did The Cruz Brothers, I knew I had something.”

This struggle for self-expression runs through Losing Ground, which came shortly after The Cruz Brothers. Collins started filming while only having raised $25,000 of $125,000 final production cost. Losing Ground ultimately deals with male dominance, marriage, and a woman’s life, told through a lens of intersectionality and empowerment. The film is “a bulletin from a vital and as-yet-unexplored dimension of reality,” writes A.O. Scott of The New York Times.

In 1983, the year after making Losing Ground, Collins reconnected with philosopher and publisher Alfred Prettyman who she knew from her SNCC organizing years. A week after they married at her Nyack home, she was diagnosed with metastasized breast cancer. At the time of her death in 1988, just a year before Bill Gunn died at Nyack Hospital, she was only 46. Collins left behind many projects including stage plays and an unfinished novel.

After writing her first screenplay in 1971, Collins reflected on her achievement: “Nobody would give any money to a Black woman to direct a film. It was probably the most discouraging time of my life.” The film screening is just one piece of decades of restorative work on Collins’ canon. “It is amazing to bring this body of work and this creative community to light and to think about how it connects with our community today. What is it about Rockland that fosters so much creative collaboration? Is our creative community today their legacy?” asks Rivertown’s Board Chairperson Vera Aronow. “Surely in some ways it is. It’s a rare privilege to have Kathleen Collins’ daughter and some of her collaborators with us to discuss her groundbreaking work.”

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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