Family & Friends · Film & Television

Kathleen Collins — A Daughter Keeps Her Mother’s Artistic Legacy Alive

The death of my mother, when I was nineteen, has been the defining event of my life. I have four beloved children, started businesses, and been married twice. All these things loom large, but the loss of my mother pierced me in a way that I’ve never recovered from, and my love for her both buoys me and weighs me down.

Her name was Kathleen Collins (1942-1988), an African-American playwright, artist, short-story writer, and filmmaker, whose considerable creative output was only marginally recognized during her lifetime. When I was growing up my mother supported us with a job teaching film at The City College of New York. Simultaneously, she was constantly writing short stories and developing projects, having her plays read and produced, and making two films, neither of which were released in her lifetime.

A young Kathleen Collins. (Courtesy of Nina Collins)

As I neared the age my mother was when she died, forty-six, I found myself finally ready to grapple with the themes that consumed her — race, sexuality, intellectualism, women’s lives. I started to dig through the considerable archive of work she left behind. What I found blew me away: color, poetry, moments of real brilliance, and a voice so fresh that it spoke to me across the decades. I wondered if others might feel the same way, and I decided to try and share her voice and vision with the world.

The response to her work was overwhelming.

Nearly thirty years after my mother’s death, her films, Losing Ground (1982) and The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy (1987), were re-mastered and released in 2015 at The Film Society at Lincoln Center in New York to great acclaim. Losing Ground, one of the first feature films written and directed by a black woman, resonated deeply with women across all generations and backgrounds. For its  exploration of  women’s sexuality and modern marriage, film critic Tambay A. Obenson wrote:

“That Losing Ground still feels fresh, over three decades later, is not only a testament to its timelessness, but also is sadly indicative of how scarce complex depictions of the inner lives of women—specifically black women—are, in contemporary American cinema.”

In the wake of this astonishing success and revival of my mothers’ work, I was able to organize a collection of her never-before-published stories, Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? released by Ecco Press, an imprint of HarperCollins, last December. Its sixteen short stories explore deep, universal issues of race, gender, family, and sexuality. The book has received accolades from women whose company I know my mother would have been so proud to join: Zadie Smith, Miranda July, Margo Jefferson, Leslie Jamison, Vivian Gornick, Bliss Broyard, Katie Roiphe, and many others.

The process of re-discovering and promoting my mother’s work has been miraculous in many ways: healing, re-connecting, and full of love, pride, and lingering sadness.

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