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A groundbreaking filmmaker finally gets her time to shine

February 23, 2017 at 5:50 PM EDT
Kathleen Collins was one of the first African-American women to direct a feature film, but her work wasn’t widely released before her death from cancer in 1988. Nearly 30 years later, her daughter Nina Collins had the film restored, and now it’s finally getting critical recognition. Collins gives her Brief But Spectacular take on her mother’s life and legacy in cinema.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Now to our Brief But Spectacular series, where we ask people to describe their passions.

Kathleen Collins was one of the first African-American women to direct a feature film, “Losing Ground.” Having passed away from cancer in 1988, she is remembered tonight by her daughter, Nina Collins.

Nearly 30 years after her death, Collins has restored her mother’s work, including a book of her short stories, entitled “Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?”

NINA COLLINS, Daughter of Kathleen Collins: My mother was one of the first black women, I think the second black woman to make a feature film in America. She wrote, produced, and directed “Losing Ground.”

She made the film in 1982. This was before “The Cosby Show,” which, for me, was the big time we really saw black middle-class Americans in popular culture. Really, it had just not been seen. I think that was why the films weren’t released in their time.

I turned 47 this year, and my mother died when she was 46. And last year was a difficult, complicated year for me. Her work was being released. I was the same age she was when she died.

I was really lucky to have a mother who made me feel like I could definitely do anything. She was enormously capable, but it was also hard. I think she was pretty depressed. She was always writing. She was always in her room typing and kind of distracted.

She had first gotten cancer when I was 11, and then had a recurrence when I was 15, and then a third recurrence when I was 18. And she kept all of that a secret from me. Then I went off to study abroad for a year. I came home from Europe, and she was very, very sick. And she died two weeks later.

And the only thing that she was explicit about was that she wanted me to take care of my brother. It was incredibly stressful, and we had no money, and I felt abandoned and didn’t know what to do.

So, I collected all of her writing that I could find and her photographs and copies of everything, and put it in this big trunk that I found in our house.

I really couldn’t go through it. It was just too painful. And then, in my 30s, so, you know, almost 20 years later, I was going through a difficult time in my own life and kind of realized that I hadn’t looked at my history enough.

I started looking through this trunk and reading her journals and her letters. There were screenplays and plays and short stories that I had never read and an unfinished novel. It was a huge treasure trove of material.

I had “Losing Ground” restored really so that it wouldn’t be lost. When the Lincoln Center announced that they wanted it for this festival, we didn’t expect what happened to happen. So, suddenly, we started getting all these reviews.

I woke up to a New Yorker review on my phone, and I just couldn’t stop crying.

So, it’s very bittersweet. She’s been dead now almost 30 years. And I can’t imagine what she would feel if she knew all these things had happened.

I feel like I’m championing my mother. I’m bringing her work to light. And I’m also working through my own relationship with her. And I think, as I get older, I’m able to understand better what she was going through and to forgive her for some of the things that I missed.

My name is Nina Collins, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on my mother.

HARI SREENIVASAN: You can watch additional Brief But Spectacular episodes on our Web site, pbs.org/newshour/brief.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this Brief But Spectacular episode identified a photograph of camerawoman Jessie Maple, the first African American woman to gain entry into New York’s camera operators union, as Nina Collins’ mother Kathleen Collins. PBS NewsHour regrets the error.

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