At MOMA, a Hidden History of Black Intimacy on Film

Early in Kathleen Collins’s 1982 film, “Losing Ground,” the main
character, Sara, lies in an embrace with her wily husband, Victor. The
couple face each other in bed, his palm holding the back of her head as
strands of dense black hair spill between his fingers. He holds her like
a sweet, delicate thing: protectively, with a firm certainty. “Losing
Ground” is one of the first full-length features directed by a black
woman, and Collins, a feverishly working polymath from New Jersey who
died young, in 1988, with a trove of unpublished work, had a tendency
toward quirky, memorable camera angles. The bedroom shot pans vertically
so that the viewer can see the lean, brown bodies of the co-stars fully
extended, giving one another comfort.

The scene is useful for grounding the audience in the relationship that
Collins’s film turns on. It’s also memorable because it is so rare to
see scenes like it in the movies. American cinema, with its vaudevillian
roots, is littered with black humiliation—confused, dimwitted buffoons,
doomed temptresses, slick con artists, docileand loyal servants. Famously,
the first black actress to win an Academy Award was Hattie McDaniel, for
her portrayal of Mammy in “Gone with the Wind,” in 1940. Mammy managed
an estate, was preoccupied by the affairs of her charge, Scarlett, and
had no inner life to speak of. More than sixty years later, Halle Berry
became the first black woman to win an Oscar in the Best Actress
category, for playing, in the 2001 film “Monster’s Ball,” a grieving
wife and mother whose dead, overweight son “ate all the chicken.”

The bedroom shot in “Losing Ground” does remind me of a scene in Charles
Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep,” a 1978 film shot in the Watts section of
Los Angeles. Both are featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s
retrospective “Black Intimacy,” which runs through October 16th. In
“Killer of Sheep,” a desperately unhappy married couple, played by Henry G.

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