Kathleen Cornwell Collins is celebrated for her 1982 film, “Losing Ground,” and perhaps, her play, “In the Midnight Hour,” as well as, “The Brothers.” Though she died at the young age of 46, her legacy and impact on the film industry have been phenomenal. However, one key aspect of her success story that is not often highlighted is her journey to filmmaking and playwriting when there were only a few black female directors.
Gifted with brilliant writing skills, she started writing her own stories with no guidance and completed her first screenplay in 1971. Sadly, no film studio was willing to have a black woman direct movies at that time. Kathleen’s inspiration to venture into filmmaking came from one of her students who encouraged her to make her own movies.
She started off with her first film, the Cruz Chronicles, a short story collection that was sponsored by her friends who invested $5000. The 1980 film highlighted the adventure of three Puerto Rican brothers who were dealing with the trauma of their dead father. It caught up with movie lovers and won First Prize at the prestigious Sinking Creek Film Festival. Though her interest in the subject of Latinos attracted backlash from movie critics, she felt it was an underreported area and dedicated attention to it.
She was already making waves when she was a teenager. Kathleen won the first prize at the annual poetry reading contest at Rutgers Newark College of Arts and Sciences for her rendition of Walt Whitman’s “A Child Goes Forth” and “I Learned My Lesson Complete” when she was 15 years.
The dailies wrote about the waves she was making as an assistant editor of the Lincoln High School’s publication, The Leader. She took this interest in writing for her college newsletter, where she wrote editorials for The Skidmore News. Her areas of interest included the history of her school, discrimination, freedom of the press, and the need for society to be better.
Born in 1942, Kathleen grew up in Jersey City and schooled at Skidmore and the Sorbonne, where she demonstrated a passion for the civil rights movement – which shaped her love for filmmaking and playwright. She graduated from Skidmore in 1963 with a BA in Philosophy and Religion.
She experienced a life-changing moment when student leaders, Charles Sherrod and Charles Jones, visited her on campus in 1962. Together with other college students, they called on black communities to rally African American voters about the consciousness of their voting rights. When she was given the platform, her eloquent delivery of the plight of African Americans and the need for justice for blacks made the headlines, according to Kathleen Collins. However, she was arrested in the course of her civil rights activism.
After Kathleen completed college, she ventured into teaching, where she taught French in Newton, MA, and schooled for her graduate studies at night at Harvard. A scholarship she earned from John Whitney Hay enabled her to offer her master’s in French literature through the Middlebury program at the Sorbonne in Paris.
She leveraged the opportunity there to briefly study literature in film, which sparked her interest in filmmaking. She returned to the US in 1966 and spent years working in the broadcasting space with organizations such as the BBC, Craven Films, Belafonte Enterprises, Bill Jersey Productions, William Greaves Productions, and the United States Information Agency.
After her first success with the Cruz Chronicles, she went into other productions, with notable ones such as Losing Ground in 1982, which won First Prize at the Figueroa International Film Festival in Portugal and attracted international buzz at the movie box office, but made minimal waves in the United States. She raised $25,000 out of the production cost of $125, 0000.
Kathleen died in 1988 from breast cancer. She used her work to break the barriers of stereotyping, amplifying the ills that militated against gender, race, and class – an outstanding legacy that shall never be forgotten.