Jin Jung and Duquann Sweeney created “Were Here JC” to honor the unsung history of former Jersey City residents. They do this by putting up signs at places where historical events have happened to people that residents and passers-by in attendance might otherwise never know. They match this sign to a place on an online map with more information on the subject.
Kathleen Collins, one of the nation’s foremost African-American filmmakers, was a Jersey City native raised on Pacific Avenue. Hosted by the Jersey City Theater Center, Were HereJC presents a screening of Collins’ feature debut “Losing Ground” in Jersey City on Wednesday, March 16 at 7:30 p.m. at White Eagle Hall, 337 Newark Ave.
“Losing Ground” was Collins’ second film and feature debut, one of the first directed by an African-American woman, and stars actor/director Seret Scott as Sara, Bill Gunn (“Ganja and Hess”) as Victor and Duane Jones (“Night of the Living Dead”) as Duke.
Sara is a philosophy professor married to a cheating artist husband who is forced to see her in a new light, as she embarks on a journey in search of “ecstasy” in multi-faceted forms.
Collins’ directorial debut, “The Cruz Brothers and Miss Malloy”, a 50-minute short, centered on three Puerto Rican brothers who flee to upstate New York after the sudden death of their father – who continues to watch over them as they renovate the home of the eponymous Miss Malloy. Both films were co-produced and directed by Ronald Gray.
Born March 18, 1942, Collins died tragically at age 46 of breast cancer in 1988. Her upbringing in Jersey City on Pacific Avenue was mentioned in the Jersey Journal for her personal achievements and civil rights activism. Collins went to Skidmore College and, after studying in France where she cemented her love of filmmaking, headed to New York. But Jersey City “was her home and she was proud of it,” said Nina Lorez Collins, her mother’s daughter and executor.
It was Nina who took the negatives of “Losing Ground,” a film limited to festival screenings during Collins’ lifetime, and oversaw a digital restoration by Milestone Films.
In their press release for “Losing Ground”, Milestone Films noted: “Because she was not interested in portraying minorities as victims or thugs, the press and the film industry ignored Collins’ work. The first substantial coverage Collins received in The New York Times was his obituary, and he also quotes Collins musing on the influence that cinema, with its predominantly white central characters, had on how black people saw themselves.
In an interview earlier this week, Jung expressed how Collins, the daughter of another Jersey City figure with a long shadow, fascinated her. “(Collins’ father) Frank Conwell is supposed to be the first African-American manager in Jersey City,” Jung said. “That’s why PS #3 is named after him…so he was like a pretty prominent person in Jersey City….I think they were (relatively) well off here. It’s really hard for me to imagine Pacific Avenue ( so) where she grew up. Did you know that back then, across the street from where she lived at the time, there was the Frederick Douglass Film Company? And what a coincidence (is that) As a filmmaker, did she even know that?
The Frederick Douglass Film Company, another location listed on the Were Here JC website, dates back to 1916 as a place where African-American filmmakers could thwart work like DW Griffith’s pro-Klan film “Birth of a Nation “.
When Jung attempted to contact Nina on kathleencollins.org, his original intention was to get permission to put a sign on Collins.
“I didn’t contact them about a screening. I said I wanted to put up a sign, ‘are you ok’ and hopefully we can have an event.’ And then when we started talking, Dennis Doros from Milestone told me that March 18th would have been her 80th birthday if she were still alive. And it’s also the 40th anniversary of the release of Losing Ground.
Jung found it surreal that Collins’ films were among the first made for public consumption by an African-American woman. “(It) feels like it’s a bit too late, in the 80s. But it also makes sense because if you look at it now, how many black female directors do we know?
“I think she was a real feminist,” Jung continued. “We don’t really talk enough about black feminism. And I mean, she was from here. She went to Lincoln High. She was so cool. Why don’t we talk about her? And why don’t the kids who go to Lincoln High know her? …People who have less connection to the city (have murals). And you know kids always want to make an impact, and they don’t know how. And they can see that she made an impact. The art world these days still speaks of her as someone who influenced these young artists.
Jung and Sweeney, who both work full-time, continue to spend months trying to identify and connect with owners of properties where unrecognized figures from Jersey City’s past have made their mark.
“I think that’s the hardest part of living in a built-up Jersey City (as it is now) — it’s not like this new condo just happened out of nowhere,” Jung said. “Everyone who was built here built this, everyone is part of what built this shiny thing. I think that’s the sad thing about it, because people make it seem like this new thing is just going to erase all those poor people and make them better, but it’s actually the poor people who made it possible. I think a lot of good things have happened here, and a lot of bad things have happened here, and we kind of postponed all the good and bad until 2022.”
Jung mentioned the ongoing lawsuit regarding segregation in New Jersey schools and reflected on how this applies locally “Look at all the new younger students coming in. They go to private schools.
“I think my main target audience for Were Here is young people, so maybe they don’t forget or they know that people lived here and did great things. Maybe it’s close to home. you and you don’t know it. And maybe they’ll feel like the world is my oyster. I can do a lot of things, not just the things I already know, because I feel like that Jersey City is like a big place, but also it makes you feel really small, in a very small world.
Tickets for the Wednesday, March 16 screening of “Breaking Ground” are $10. Learn more at wereherejc.info/events/screening-losing-ground or buy tickets directly at https://www.seetickets.us/event/Film-Screening-LOSING-GROUND/460869
There’s a 30-minute Q&A and conversation in addition to the film screening at 1:25:55, all supported by Milestone Films and the Jersey City Landmarks Conservancy.
Learn more and possibly work with Were Here JC at wereherejc.info.