A Commitment to Writing
A Conversation with Kathleen Collins Prettyman
In March of 1986, attending the Atlanta Third World Film Festival for its week-long program of work by black women filmmakers, “Sexual Difference: Women Look At/Show Themselves,” I was privileged to be able to spend several hours on successive days with Kathleen Collins Prettyman.
Black Film Review was little more than a year old then and, while I had seen only one of her films, Losing Ground, I had been struck by the intelligence of every aspect of the film: the writing, the directing, the editing, the acting. I would see the film twice more that week in Atlanta; each time I saw something new to wonder at in it.
Somewhat nervously, I approached Kathleen Collins Prettyman the first day of the festival during a series of screenings and discussions at the Atlanta Public Library, and asked to interview her. We met later that week one morning at the hotel where she was staying. The following is a transcript of that interview in the coffee shop of the hotel.
What I remember as I read over it, hearing her voice in my head, is Kathleen Collins Prettyman’s thoughtfulness. She seemed a person who had lived, who had had many experiences and had come to terms with them, integrating them into her being. Every answer she gave was thoughtful and considered; soon the interview became that rare dialogue where the interviewer finds himself challenged and provoked.
The thing is, as little as I knew Kathleen Collins Prettyman, as little basis as I may have for making this judgement, I believe that she was a woman who did not take the easy way. She hewed to no party line, except that of her own conscience. When she spoke of work as a filmmaker, it was not using words she had read or that others had said; all of it came out of her own experience.
One of the first things journalists learn is to keep themselves out of the story. One never injects one’s own opinions and commentaries into the conversation. But what I can say now, that I could not in the original version of this interview that appeared in the Summer 1986 issue of Black Film Review, is that the hours I spent with Kathleen Collins Prettyman affected me profoundly.
I began to write when I was a child, have written novels, plays, screenplays, short stories and, now, more journalism than I care to think about. Three years before I talked to Kathleen Collins Prettyman, I had graduated from the University of Iowa Writers Workshop with a master of fine arts degree in fiction. In coming to Atlanta, I was taking a break from work on my own novel.
My conversation with her then, apart from a dialogue with a filmmaker whose work I respected, was of great personal value. Here was someone who had done what I wanted to do, who had managed, despite the rigors of teaching and raising a family, to continue to write. And here was an artistic model, someone who knew that excellence involved scrupulousness, that to practice a craft meant purging oneself against dishonesty, for to be dishonest meant bad art. And here was someone who was willing to say what I, still serving his apprenticeship as a writer, needed to hear from someone besides himself.
Among the films we watched that first day of the film festival, was Your Children Come Back to You, by Alile Sharon Larkin. It is referred to in the interview. The film depicts the conflict of a little girl torn between the middle-class life of her grandmother, and her love for her father, a guerrilla fighter in Africa. During the discussion, most people praised the film for. Despite its flaws, it was, after all, politically correct.
Kathleen Collins Prettyman sat listening to others comments. And then she said that while it was a good film, she thought that the director had ignored the real story for an easy political message. And the real story, she said, was the pain of the little girl who was forced to choose.
It was different, and wholly legitimate slant on the film that all of us had ignored. Later that week, when Losing Ground was shown at Spelman College, I heard something that shocked me, for it was evidence of an attitude that I found incomprehensible. After the screening, a man asked Kathleen Collins Prettyman if she had made the film. When she said yes, he replied, “You’re a traitor to the race,” and stalked away. And still later, months later, talking to one of our better known filmmakers whose work has enjoyed national release, this director-writer-producer told me he did not like Losing Ground because it was a negative portrait of a black marriage.
The loss of Kathleen Collins Prettyman is a true tragedy, for she was a woman of genius, a woman readying herself to do her best work. But it is also a tragedy that there were those who, locked into conventional attitudes, could not surmount their narrow-mindedness to see the truth, the beauty, and the honesty of her work. In Losing Ground, she brought to the screen aspects of Black life that have never been shown before, exploring pain, jealousy, and a woman’s search for her own identity in an absolute unflinching way.
After this brief conversation with Kathleen Collins Prettyman, I knew that she would always be one of my mentors. And I will miss her.
Black Film Review: I read another interview with you where you seemed reluctant to define yourself as a filmmaker. And then yesterday you talked about the difference between getting out a thought verbally, and then with the visual image. So I guess I would ask, if you don’t define yourself as a filmmaker, how, then, do you define yourself?
Kathleen Collins Prettyman: I keep saying that I am more a writer than I am a filmmaker, and I think that’s really true. My first commitment is actually to writing and the form that that takes is really largely dependent on what’s on my mind. I’ve been writing now for almost 20 years. That’s taken the form of about six plays, a whole collection of short stories, a novel that I’m doing now, and about four screenplays. So when I first start something, I always go to the typewriter. So I guess that makes you a writer. Plus, I keep three or four different journals, for different parts of my head.
If I am trying to work something out, I’ll write it, before I do anything else. Also, I teach screenplay writing, and I teach it as a visual form of writing. So I think my first commitment is as a writer.
That’s interesting, in one sense. I don’t want to get too far off on this, but over the last few months, some people have observed that one thing that’s wrong in Hollywood is that there aren’t enough writers writing scripts any more, and so they are weak.
They’re weak in terms of language. I think that’s really true.
But also in terms of structure.
That’s what I was going to say. The thing that writing teaches you, which is probably the thing I’ve discovered that I know best about, is the mastery of form. And each discipline is really an exercise in understanding what is allowable in the structure of that particular form. Screenplay writing has curves and you have to write for the curves of the story. I’m talking about narrative filmmaking, although interestingly enough, I’ve now been teaching documentary filmmakers how to use narrative techniques to make documentaries both more interesting and to recognize that in a good documentary ultimately you’re still telling a story. And that sense of what the structure and the rebound of what a story is.
While I would not say that there are formulas, there are formulas in one sense. If you’re introducing a secondary character, and that character is going to have some reverberation on the outcome of the story, you have to know that that character needs to be presented in the film at least three times. I call that a rule of thumb. There are certain kinds of patterns that have to occur if the reverb of the character is to work correctly on the completed film.
Also, I think another thing is that the first time there has to be something that the character does that is symbolic of his function. Like in the Maya Angelou film yesterday, the game that they play in one where they inflict pain on each other.
And what occurs is somehow going to be the completion of that. Yes, that’s true. I call it the unconscious suggestion of the outcome. That an audience should never be totally surprised. It should be half-surprised, and the other part should say “Mmmmm.” Because if you’ve built character correctly, nothing happens out of the blue. Usually what happens with young people who write is they can come up with wonderful beginnings and wonderful endings and the middle doesn’t exist. The middle of a piece is actually the most difficult to construct. Because it’s the middle that has to bound and rebound and bound and rebound and then flatten out or explode or do whatever.
And that is different in a play than it is in a film or a short story. Each one of those forms has it’s kind of unwritten laws. I don’t know whether those laws are written in stone, or whether it isn’t that once you know the laws, your ability to violate them becomes possible. If you don’t know them, I question whether you actually can create something “new”. Because creating something new comes out of mastering the old in a real way.
It’s like a lot of students play with “Well, why do you have to tell a story in a film?” Well, if you haven’t seen Goddard, you’re not aware that he started asking that question 20 years ago. I mean, all Goddard’s films are about do you have to tell a story in a film or not. And what he does is play with the limits of narrative convention. So if any student comes to me and says, “I don’t know why I have to tell a story on film. Why do I have to tell a story that has a beginning, a middle and an end?” I tell them to go look at all his films. Then they might have something new to say about narrative. But they better deal with someone who has been obsessed with the same question. Because there’s always someone who’s asking the same questions you’re asking.
In a certain way, the older I get, I have this feeling of being very connected with Lorraine Hansberry. I’ve never found another black writer who I felt was asking the same questions I was asking until I started reading her work. I now see that everyone takes off from someone else. And I have this strong feeling that there is this conversation that I have to have with Lorraine Hansberry at some point in time, because a lot of her preoccupations are my preoccupations.
I really think that Raisin in the Sun has never been done correctly. That it’s a play that’s actually been misinterpreted and that it’s been taken as a kind of a simple family tale. When I think that the levels of abstraction of the play are more complicated than that. The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window is a wonderful, an absolutely brilliant play. And the fact that she was able to encompass this wide range of experience, from Jewish intellectuals to black middle class to Africa – she had a really incredible sense of life that fascinates me. That anything in life was accessible for her to write about.
Instead of …
Instead of feeling that the Black experience was the only experience that she could write about. And it is that breadth of vision that I have always sensed was ultimately my vision. And there was never another writer that attracted me in the same way. I would say there is no one else …
I didn’t know this. Haile [Gerima] kept telling me that I should read Lorraine Hansberry. And I kept saying “Oh, Lorraine Hansberry. Raisin in the Sun.” I kept sort of poo-pooing it a little bit. He let it go, but he kept saying, “At some point, you have to read Lorraine Hansberry.” So he just bought me all her books one day, when I was down there. And said, “Just take ’em home. Read’em when you want.”
I was really shocked by the breadth of work. The woman’s essays alone are some of the most insightful pieces of social criticism around. The thing that interests me about her, probably more than anyone else, is her illness. She died very young, and she died basically eaten up. My theory is that she was not only way ahead of her time, but that success came at a time when she was not able to absorb it without its destructive elements eating her body up.
My basic premise is that all illness is psychic disconnection of some kind. And I had a period of time when I was ill. I still have to struggle with it. 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. Because I think that women – if there’s any way that I am a feminist, because I don’t really think of myself as a feminist – but if there is any way in which women tend to be self-destructive it is in that area of creativity where they actually feel their own power and can’t either acknowledge it or go into it with as much …
They can’t go to the end of it. They get scared and they retreat into illness or into having too many babies or destructive love affairs with men who run them ragged. Somewhere or other, they detour out of a respect for their own creativity.
My feeling is that her detour was into illness. Talented women are probably frightened of themselves, very frightened of themselves …
But any creative person has to go his or her own way. It may be harder for women where so much of the social pressure is to go certain ways.
It may be entirely a question of the degree of pressure. You may be absolutely right that it’s a question of degree, not of kind.
When were you ill?
I think it’s very curious, curiously at a point of time when 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. It was basically a long four-year cycle, which I’m just coming out of.
This was after The Cruz Brothers and Mrs. Malloy?
Yes. When I did The Cruz Brothers, I knew I had something. It was 1979, and I was 37. It probably takes that long to mature. But it was at the point of the beginning maturity, and it was when I began to know that the work from then on was going to be really interesting.
How did you come to do that film?
It was kind of a fluke. I had tried to do a film about four or five years before that. I was a film editor for a long time and I had done all this graduate work in Paris and also I had been a film researcher. And then I had gone into academia because I had credentials in film theory and this doctorate in French cinema, so I had academic credentials and I gave up film editing because I had small children and film editing is incredibly demanding and I really didn’t want not to be around my children.
So I had gone to City College at that time when film was becoming a legitimate academic subject and they were looking for people with legitimate academic credentials as well as production credentials. But the year before I went to City College, I had written a script called Women, Sisters and Friends, and I had gone all around the country trying to raise money to do it. Nobody would give any money to a black woman to direct a film. This was in 1971. Forget it. It was just ridiculous. And I did that for a year, looking for money.
And then I got so discouraged, I said no one’s ever going to give us any money to do a film. People would love the script, thought it was a wonderful idea, but thought I should find a director and a producer. That was probably the most discouraging time of my life. I gave it up, moved out of New York City, moved to the country, and started writing plays. I said, “Forget it, I’ll never be able to make a film; I might as well do something else with my life.” And I lived pretty much alone with my kids for two or three years until 1974, writing plays. That’s when I started writing plays.
And then I got this job at City College in 1974 and started teaching directing and screen play writing and a lot of film theory courses. And over that four-years until 1979 – Cruz Brothers was finished, we did it in 1979, we shot in summer of 1979 – it was my students who made me do a film. Particularly Ronald Gray, who was one of my students. And he kept saying, “You’re so good. I’ve learned more.” He said, “You really know film. Why don’t you ever make a movie?” And I said, “No, nobody’s ever going to give us any money to make a movie.” And he really pushed me to make a movie. And we got a little bit of money – we got $5.000 from the family of a very close girlfriend of mine. And he said if we could get a lab credit, we could make this movie. He just kept pushing. I had this sort of crazy script by this good friend, Henry Roth, from a novel called The Cruz Chronicles: A Novel of Adventure.
I had written a lot of short stories myself, but I thought well, if I’m going to do a first movie, I should do somebody else’s work, because I’ll get more distance from it. And that’s how I did The Cruz Brothers, with that kind of push. It was a terribly hard film. It was awful, doing a movie for $5.000. It was like going down a terribly long tunnel. It was frightening – I was old. Not old, but 37 isn’t young – it’s not like you’re 21. I had children and all that sort of stuff.
But we did it. And we did it because Ronald and I were really very good partners and have remained very good partners. We both have an incredible tenacity.
I don’t remember his name from the credits.
Ronald lit and shot both The Cruz Brothers and Losing Ground. And we edited it together and produced it together. He did film called Transmag. He’s a brilliant cinematographer.
And after that …
After that we were rolling. We got money to do Losing Ground from all those grants and everything.
But just to tie it back, after this it was that you became ill.
Yes. It was in 1980. We had just finished The Cruz Brothers, and it had just started getting a lot of attention. And that’s when I got ill. The timing was uncanny. I really felt like I was just coming out of this incredible tunnel that I had been in for years and years and I could finally see the light. I could see where I was going to go. People were saying the work was very good and that it was unusual and it was a new voice. It was just then.
And then it got kind of scary. For about four years it was a scary time. Even though I did Losing Ground in that period. We did Losing Ground in ’81-’82. And then we just finished this Gouldtown film, about my family. It’s a short, 40-minute film.
Let’s backtrack a little bit. Where are you from?
I grew up in Jersey City, N.J. But my family is from Gouldtown, a long-established settlement. They’ve been there since like 1623. It’s one of those classic situations, like when Roots came out, I didn’t get it in a way, because I’ve been able to trace every member of my family. It’s right near Cape May.
And your academic background.
I went to Skidmore College and I went to Middlebury graduate school in France. I did all my graduate work in France. I’ve never finished my thesis, so I don’t officially have my degree. But between the credit and my playwrighting, they’ve always given me academic equivalence. I’ll never go finish it. I was doing it on André Breton and the surrealists and the whole relationship between surreal imagery and poetry. And I finished the masters and all the credit work. I stayed in Europe for about three years.
One of the things that intrigued me about Losing Ground – after I had seen it and written the piece about it, someone called me up and said he wanted to write for me because of the review. In it, I said it reminded me very much of Erich Rohmer.
That’s the only person who’s ever influenced me cinematically.
In what way?
Because of his respect for language. And because he’s very literary. And because I think of myself as a very literary filmmaker, which is why that I insist that I am a writer first. I really like language in film, and he is not the least bit afraid of language in film. My Night at Maud’s probably influenced me more than any other movie. All of the Moral Tales were very important to me.
I cannot think of another filmmaker who is also a writer. The Moral Tales are also available as short stories.
Yes, so there’s also that connection. I’ve said it in interviews.
What I saw was his interest in relationships and the dynamics of people in odd situations.
Yes, that’s the other thing that fascinates me about him. He’s very concerned with subtle issues. Moral issues. Which is my concern and is where I feel very concerned with Charles Burnett. Charlie is very interested in subtle moral issues. It’s what all his films are about. Basically.
Killer of Sheep is about a man who is trying to decide whether he can indulge his depression, or whether he has a responsibility to transcend it. And My Brother’s Wedding is really … although I consider it a slightly flawed film; I consider it flawed incidentally, in the same way I consider Losing Ground flawed – that both of us attempt a complex narrative film on almost too little money and we just barely pulled it off.
But My Brother’s Wedding is really about when is one responsible to family and when is one responsible to that circle of creatures that has formed around one. I am very curious about this new film he’s trying to do. I know ultimately it will be about some very slight moral issue, because Charlie is basically a moralist.
As are you?
Yes. When I saw Killer of Sheep, I went out of my mind. I really lost it. I could not believe there was anybody else around, particularly Black.
I enjoy talking about Charles Burnett, but I’d really rather learn about you.
Well, I think Charlie has better cinematic instincts than I do. I think that my literary instincts tend to get in the way.
Yes, but there are some incredible moments in Losing Ground. I remember being struck by the way a scene at the dinner table was shot.
I know that I am a very good editor. And Ron and I together are a dynamic couple of editors. He has an incredible sense of musical editing rhythm. And, from the years of working as an editor, I have an incredible sense of timing. So I do respect that – not as boastful – but just as a fact. The craft of editing – I was trained by some of the best editors. I was trained by John Carter, who was head editor at NBC for 15 years and he’s just a crackerjack editor. And I learned editing at a time when there was still an incredible respect for the craft. Now, it’s not respected. If you look at movies nowadays, they are so sloppy edited that it is pathetic.
There is no respect for the fine tuning of a cut. Which is what I teach my students – there is a perfect place to cut a shot. And that’s where you cut it – you don’t cut it three frames before of three frames after – you find the spot, the perfect frame. And that’s only because I was taught in that old school way. There are only a few people who are still around who are great like that. Whoever cut Choose Me – it is beautifully cut. It is some of the finest editing craftsmanship I’ve seen in a long time. There is not a flawed moment in the timing of those cuts. It’s a gorgeous film to watch too.
There seem to be different poles in Black independent film. Some of the other films we’ve seen are more accessible.
It [Losing Ground] has a more complex audience response. People either love it or they hate it. It’s not very lukewarm.
It’s something like what you were talking about yesterday. The synthesis – the people in Losing Ground are people who have achieved an imperfect synthesis.
I think that’s true. or I would say they are people who are willing to recognize that being Black is without purity. That one cannot achieve purity in this culture. That one can only achieve some kind of emotional truth.
I think that the people in Your Children Come Back to You, or the filmmaker, is still concerned with some kind of possible racial purity. That if one could get this adopted country out of one’s blood, one could be as pure as the earth. I don’t think that the earth symbols are dirt so much as they are the filmmaker wanting a kind of innocence to return to Black people. And in that innocence, Africa would be rekindled in the entire bloodstream, until it was purified of the taint of America.
That’s my essential feeling about the subconscious attitude of the filmmaker. And that to go back to fight for the motherland – it’s not so much that’s she’s dealing with the issue of what men do or don’t do – I think she’s trying to find a place where some wholesome battle can occur. But I don’t believe that’s possible. I think that this is not our adopted country. This is it. We’re stuck. We are already. We are an odd kettle of fish.
The only real Americans?
I don’t like that phrase only because I think it’s a kind of philosophical cliché. But we are what these years in this place have made us. That’s what we have to live with.
So that the struggle …
The struggle is to somehow figure out what’s made you unique. Because we are unique. We are not like anybody else because of that peculiar kind of place. We’re not in America and we’re not out of it. We’re not insiders. We’re hated and we hate ourselves, yet we have this inkling that there’s something incredible about what we’ve done, and that we have more insight than anyone else. We’re a really weird kettle of fish, and that’s what is. That is what is the fact. That’s what we have to begin with.
But for the characters in that film. I don’t know that they ever come out and say this, but I think it’s clear they are consciousness of this.
They have an irony about themselves. The mother says, “All I can play is older women without sexuality. I’d love to play some gutsy role.” She’s ironic. She knows. It’s the way Black people talk about themselves.
Or when Bill says “Let’s put this mulatto crisis on hold.”
Right. They know. We know. Because we have this internal conversation with ourselves about the irony of our position. And in a way the only interesting thing about these people is – the mother says, “I wouldn’t have blamed you if you were a failure. Race is a great excuse.” Or she says, “After all, you’re not white. Nothing is guaranteed if you’re Black.” It’s that kind of irony towards your condition.
Like the piece I’m writing now is about this Black woman expatriate, who’s lived in Paris all of her life. The point is what I’m after here is again the many ways in which we have tried to be whole people and yet accept the fact that we’re fragmented souls in the culture.
But it seems to me for the people in the film, it’s more of an internal struggle, than it is an external, political struggle.
In the sense that that’s what characterizes all my work. Which is that I’m much more pre-occupied with … While I’m interested in external reality, I am much more concerned with how people resolve their inner dilemma in the face of external reality. How do you resolve it? How do you deal with it? So that Sarah’s quest for ecstasy is on the external level an intellectual Black woman who has locked herself into what a lot of Black women do – too much intellectualism – there’s that external part to her. But the internal part to her is still a woman raised by a mother who was a little bit libertine and living with a husband who is a little bit too spontaneous. And how is she going to resolve her personal connection to these people and to herself in the process.
If I favour anything, I probably always favour the internal resolution before the external resolution. Because for me the internal resolution is the most potent in the psyche.
Do we get that in this film?
You don’t get the resolution, but you get the explosive moment. After that, the resolution is not your business. In all my work, I take you to the explosive moment, but that’s basically where I leave you.
Do you have a sense sometimes of going against the grain?
I have a sense sometimes of going my own way, and I don’t really think much about whether it’s for or against the grain. I don’t want to think about it. It’s again, that internal-external thing. I don’t really want to spend a lot of time worrying about how I am perceived by other people.
I don’t think I mean it quite that way. Yesterday, I was impressed by the responses you gave. They were thoughtful and considered. Do you ever worry about being ostracized?
I think I have been afraid of being alone too much. I think that’s what was connected to the illness. That a fear that I was going to be considered nuts kind of frightened me. Because when I was going to do The Cruz Brothers, people said “Why do you want to do a movie about some Puerto Ricans and some dying Irish lady?” I think that’s been a fear of mine, yeah. I don’t think I have it now, because I feel more protected now than I ever did in my personal life.
That question seems to me to be essential to the debate that, if it is not going on now, will have to occur among Black filmmakers. And that is whether we are making films for our people for some political purpose. Or whether we are making films as art.
But it’s not a simple question, because the only real question is that everybody has a private audience that they write to. My private audience is Black people. I don’t write for anybody else. But I don’t write for them in a political sense, I write for them out of my image memory because my image memory is full of Black people. I write for my aunts, my cousins. I just finished a new play called While Older Men Speak, which is really a conversation with my father, even though you wouldn’t necessarily know that.
You always write, when you’re really writing well you’re writing well out of the memory bank that you’re connected to. Memory bank is probably a good way to put it because it can be encompassing in very curious ways. You can be writing out of one anecdote that occurred ten years ago. It spawns a whole piece.
Art, which is a word I shy away from – I would never call myself an artist, never. Only because … I would call myself a craftsperson. I wouldn’t shy away from calling myself a craftsman either, although no one uses those terms anymore – everything has to be personhood. But I would call myself very committed to a refining and continuous refining of the craft – whatever craft that is. If it’s a film, I want to learn from the other films and do one that is more finely crafted the next time. If it’s a play, I want to learn from all the other plays and bring to the next one a higher level of craft. If that is artistic, let someone else decide that. My decision is to become more and more skilful at whatever I do.
To be the best?
Of course. What’s the point otherwise?
What interests me is why Black women’s voices?
You mean why can’t Black men filmmakers be enough? Is that the question? Well, I’m going to answer it in a way that’s probably going to make every Black woman hate me. So, if you print it, it’ll probably be the end of my public presence.
Actually, the only hope of any sort of feminine salvation in this country – and the sad thing is that Black women are giving it up in favour, as far as I am concerned, of a quietly growing, kind of strident, white feminism. But the only residual of softness that’s possible in this culture as far as I am concerned is in the hands of Black women. They must have the capacity to forgive Black men. Because whatever cruelty Black men have inflicted is the cruelty that is so extraordinarily and exquisitely depicted in the character of Uncle Willy in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. It is a powerlessness that the female psyche has to understand is so horrifyingly awful – particularly in a culture that only respect aggressivity – that they absolutely must forgive Black men.
You see, white women don’t necessarily have to forgive white men, because white men had real power and used it abusively. Black men never had real power. So whatever power they exercised, they have exercised out of an intense and godawful and a nightmarish relationship to the culture. We absolutely must forgive them. It is the only possibility of love left in this culture.
If we don’t forgive them, if we continue to say “Yeah, but I managed to make it and they didn’t …” The stronger person is only as strong as his capacity or her capacity to forgive the weaker person. And to separate oneself from Black men is to allow America the final triumph of division. If they can actually succeed in dividing Black men and Black women, then there is no emotional victory left in this culture. And we are actually allowing ourselves as women to fall prey to it. Things like, “There are no good Black men, ” those kind of statements. A growing kind of lesbianism which is not necessarily sexual so much as it is a kind of anger. It is the last divisiveness.
So where do filmmakers fit into this?
So it seems to me that if there is any possibility for a redemptive voice, it’s Black women who have to do it. They have to put it in their work. Films are part of a larger redemptive process that Black women have to achieve – if it’s not redemptive, it’s not worth it. Like a little piece like Ayoka [Chenzira]’s Hairpiece is important in that her desire is to reclaim black women in a sense, reaffirm black women in a sense of their own beauty. The final image of that film is a very soft, feminine beauty.
The final still?
The final of all the women. Those women are beautiful and soft. And that kind of redemptive softness. Which is because we understand so much …
When I saw it, I had the sense of understanding my sisters. And then it forced me to look at some of my thoughts of my hair. Maybe it ties back to what you were saying. This woman, looking at something about herself, forced me to look at something about myself. Importantly, too, I think it was done with a sense of humour.
Incredible sense of humour. She has a really incredible sense of humour. I think she’s going to be an interesting filmmaker as she gets older. She has a really powerful wholeness to her. In that sense, Black women filmmakers are more important probably than anybody else. I mean, whatever Black women are doing – playwrighting, whatever we’re doing. If we don’t get caught repeating what the white culture wants us to repeat and only repeat it in a more interesting, Black style.
There’s a problem here – as a rule, America focuses only on conflict.
Yes, but you’re saying softness in non conflicting. There are real conflicts, but they are not necessarily conflicts with a capital c. All internal conflict is with a small c. And all internal conflict is the only thing that is really real. Where you’re right is in saying is that American culture tends to like conflict with a capital c.
Emphasizes the little c conflicts over the softness.
I mean, Rohmer’s films are all about conflict.
But they are ultimately about something else. Through the conflict, we get to see something about the people and realize something about them and ultimately about ourselves.
The guy in Killer of Sheep is in conflict. He’s in internal conflict. I’m enjoying being depressed. Feeling sorry for myself. Can I permit myself this liberty? That’s conflict, it’s just the internal kind of conflict that is what actually occurs in people.
I’m thinking of The Color Purple. So much of the debate has focused on the negative images of black men. Little has focused on the final image of everybody together. Maybe that’s what the artist intends, giving us at the end. Saying look what’s possible – but look what you have to give up.
Or look what you have to go through. They have to go through the pain of what that means before that can occur. It’s the process of going through that allows that to occur – because you have to choose. The only reason I insist on that is that ultimately, one is free to choose to be redemptive or to be destructive.
That’s probably why I don’t like watching the final resolution of a character. Because the final resolution is a private choice, even of a character. It’s really none of my business. All I do is take the character to the point where I can see him through the dilemma to the dilemma’s climatic moment. After that, it’s free choice. And not everyone will choose the redemptive path. Which is probably why I don’t like the ending of The Color Purple – I don’t like when the author imposes a conclusion on all the characters. Which is almost a pictorial ending, rather than leaving at the moment when Celie leaves and says, “No, it’s over.”
Now who follows and who doesn’t follow … That’s really why I consider it important – to tell someone that they must give it up. No, no, no. You can tell them this is what you’ve been through. This is what looks like is going to be ahead. But where you wind it up, my dear, is really your business.
But maybe some of us need that.
But if you take that picture, then it’s going to be a false picture. Which is what I think is wrong with the book. Because the author imposes a pictorial conclusion which one should feel a little more in pain about. The reader should arrive at who might or might not. Give the reader or the viewer a little more credit. I think people are a lot smarter than they’re given credit for. What I dislike is literature that in any way guides a reader through a journey. All you can do is give out the signposts.
Then you can say, these people are interesting because they’re involved in this dilemma. Isn’t this dilemma interesting? Sarah’s the one that’s interesting to me – these are the possible ramifications: The marriage could break up, she could even go off on her own, even try to be an actress.
We also get Victor’s dilemma.
Throughout, he’s also in a kind of quandary. But that’s all I’m giving you is his quandary. I’m not sure that that’s all any writer who’s really working at her best can give you – is a really full exploration of the dilemma. And then take the dilemma to a point where it causes something to occur. You cheat anyone if you don’t go that far. You’ve got to take it to a point where it to a point where it causes a reaction. I’m not sure that you have a right to take it much further than that.
If you really give your characters autonomy. Which is that they …
Somehow the question of free will …
Bothers a lot of people …
No, that’s not where I’m coming from. You’ve created this universe. You take the characters to a certain point and then, because there’s free will, you have to let them go.
Yes, that’s like a capsule of my universe. But all of those people are me. There isn’t any character you write about that isn’t you – male, female, androgynous, homosexual, heterosexual. They’re all you. They’re all arguments you’re having with yourself about something. Just like dreams – everybody in a dream is you. Which, as hard as it is to see, is the only way to have a dream make sense. To say, “I put them in there.”
How do you manage to write so much?
I only teach two days a week. I think if you like what you’re doing, you figure out time to do it. I never think of time as my enemy. I mean, sometimes I get a little frustrated, because I have to run my kids to soccer 95 times. But that’s no big deal. I don’t really believe in busyness. I do what I have to do. I set mental deadlines. I’ll say, “Finish this, and then submit it for something.” It won’t be a real deadline; it’s not like I’m going to get it or anything. But I’ve got to finish this screenplay so I’ve said, April 15. Well, April 15, but no one’s looking at it on April 16. But if I do that, then I make time work in my favour.
I sometimes write when I’m doing my laundry. Nobody with kids can have a particular time when they write. If you like what you’re doing, then you just find the time. I just do what anybody else does – I like to write. Some people like to watch television. I sit at my typewriter, because I think it’s more fun.
Writing is terribly frightening. You’re sitting by yourself; it’s a terrible profession.
Editors Note: At this issue of Black Film Review went to press, we learned of the death of Bill Gunn, co-star of Losing Ground, and a filmmaker (Ganja and Hess) and playwright. The next issue of the magazine will feature articles on Gunn and the late Duane Jones, who was also featured in Losing Ground.
This text was originally published in Black Film Review 5, no. 1 (Winter 1988/89): 7.
With thanks to Nina Lorez Collins and David Nicholson.
© David Nicholson.
This text was published on the occasion of ‘Milestones: Losing Ground’, a collaboration between Courtisane and Sabzian. On the occasion of the online screening, several texts have been published on Sabzian, selected and edited by Stoffel Debuysere and Gerard-Jan Claes. ‘Milestones: Losing Ground’ takes place on Thursday 3 June 2021 at 19:30 on Sabzian. You can find more information on the event here.