This is admittedly my greed talking. For those under Collins’s spell, our plaint will always be the same: more. Give us more — more letters, more diary entries, more careful curation of the work. What we really want for her is more life. And more art, because what we have — even when raw, unfinished or this carelessly presented — is dazzling.
Collins’s primary characters are always some version of herself: a black woman, an intellectual with a voracious mind and, occasionally, a disappointing husband. There will be a quest of some kind — pursuit of “the darker mysteries of the self” — that might lead to a ritual of some sort and, often, a bleakly comic interlude. She is often compared to Grace Paley, lazily, I think, as another “ethnic” observer of New York in the ’60s. The two do overlap politically and share a certain generosity to their characters, but no one sounds like Collins — a Sorbonne-educated civil rights activist turned filmmaker who directed the occasional porn movie to finance her other projects. Her voice and vision are idiosyncratic and pitiless, combining mischief and crisp authority, formal experimentation and deep feeling. More and more writers, I hazard, will start to sound like her. (I am fighting the impulse here myself; her voice is strong and contagious.)
There is the sleekness of her sentences, and the burrs. There is cool skepticism but also hunger for rapture. There is humor a knife’s edge from despair. One of her characters on mastectomies: “I like the idea of losing one” — one breast. “It throws into dispute any strict female notion of myself,” she says. “It’s silly, one’s body is silly.”
Above all, there is Collins’s avowed obsession to resist what she sees as the American tendency to idealize black characters — to depict them as “sinners or saints.” “I am not interested in mythology,” she told a filmmaking class at Howard University in 1984. “I am interested in ideas. I am interested in how human beings evolve — a consciousness which is true to who they are in the center of their being. And I am interested in telling stories that give pleasure to the psyche.”
A character in “Losing Ground,” an older actress, makes this point wryly: “I’m not longing to do ‘Macbeth,’” she says, “but I’d love to play a real 60-year-old Negro lady who thinks more about men than God.” In an essay in The Times on recent “racial justice cinema,” including “The Hate U Give,” “Black Panther” and “BlacKkKlansman,” Reggie Ugwu observed the continuation of this tendency toward stock or larger-than-life storylines: “The films’ common dependence on the tropes of superhero stories and revenge fantasies, whether explicit or in disguise, suggests the difficulty of making reality-based cinema out of the history we’re currently living through.”