In a Family Portrait, The Future
At first glance, to the camera’s casual eye, the most conspicuous aspect of the Wilson-Sims family is that the mother looks like an interloper. Karen Wilson is a slightly built white woman. Her children, Cicily Wilson and Chaney Sims, resemble their father, and not only because their skin is dark. With their strong jaw lines and tall builds, you would pick them out of a roomful of other young black women as Bill Sims’s daughters.
The physical differences are part of what makes the family’s obvious affection so touching. In ”An American Love Story,” the extraordinary 10-hour series that follows them through nearly two years of everyday life and crises, it is not surprising to hear Karen say protectively of Cicily, ”She’s my baby,” though the baby towers over her.
But one of the series’ most revealing moments throws such easy observations back in a viewer’s face. As Episode 6 begins, Karen and Cicily are sitting on a bed chatting when the voice of the film’s director, Jennifer Fox, is heard asking, ”Is it difficult for you guys cause you don’t look alike?” Karen stares silently into the camera as if she were contemplating a lunatic. Her look seems to ask, ”Haven’t you learned anything?”
Asked about that scene the other day, Ms. Wilson said cheerfully: ”I looked at her a lot like that. People have to remember that the film is Jennifer’s vision of us, not necessarily us. She would ask questions about race a lot, and to me this has nothing to do with race; it’s my family.”
Ms. Fox, in a separate interview, said: ”Karen and I got into a huge discussion about that. Part of Karen’s way to see her family is not to see race. Bill sees it all the time.”
Who sees race where? That issue is the most eye-opening element of this subtly artful, engrossing, socially important series. ”An American Love Story” (to be seen on PBS next Sunday through Thursday nights in two-hour installments) is being packaged as the tale of Bill Sims and Karen Wilson’s 30-year love affair and marriage, which on the most obvious level it is. Beneath the consumer-friendly romance of its title, though, the series is more genuinely about a new kind of family and about America’s multiracial future.
Its most compelling story is not that of Bill and Karen’s interracial marriage; we’ve seen such relationships before, however fraught with problems they remain. But television has not previously paid attention to someone like Cicily. Her painful struggle to be accepted as herself, not a skin color, becomes the gripping central drama of ”An American Love Story.”
When most of the film was shot, from May 1992 through January 1994, she was a college student who left the security of her family’s home in Queens for Colgate University in upstate New York, only to feel rejected by both blacks and whites. The black students, only 3 percent of the student body, wanted her to align herself with them, apart from whites. The white students saw her as different. Cicily didn’t think she should have to choose. The camera follows her to Nigeria with other Colgate students for a semester, and into an even more fraught racial atmosphere.
Hers is an illuminating perspective for a television audience accustomed to seeing race, when seeing it at all, in stark terms of black and white. With its more complex, biracial view, ”An American Love Story” sends a sobering message: there will be no idyllic, color-blind society any time soon.
The series is especially timely now, when the N.A.A.C.P. has rightly called attention to the absence of major black characters in the season’s new entertainment shows and is planning to choose a network to boycott during the November sweeps. Several producers have scrambled to parachute black characters into their casts as a result.
In the ordinary course of things, it counts as progress when color goes unnoticed in a television romance, as it did when Ally McBeal fell in love with a black doctor last season. (It probably helped that both characters were well-educated professionals; the issue of class and interracial marriage is yet another volatile issue that television flees from.)
When race goes unnoticed in ”An American Love Story,” it is to make a larger point. The series’ most realistic attitude emerges from the way it veers smoothly between what is universal to any family and what is particular to this interracial one.
Borrowing the structure of episodic television, it organizes each hour around a particular theme or event. The events in Episode 5 have happened to everyone. The 12-year-old Chaney wants to go on her first date, but her parents don’t know this boy and want him to come to their house. Like any adolescent, Chaney can’t begin to explain why that is embarrassing.
Race casts a heavier shadow over Episode 10, as Bill and Karen go to her high school reunion in Ohio. She recalls that when they started seeing each other there, in 1967, ”the sheriff followed Bill everywhere we went.” Because they were not married when Cicily was born, a social worker advised her to give the baby up for adoption.
And Episode 7, more typically, makes the point that this family is both like and different from most of America. Karen, so weak from her recent hysterectomy she can barely walk, insists on going to Cicily’s graduation from Colgate; what mother wouldn’t? But how many would warn her husband to take his passport when leaving the hotel? Having it might help if he is stopped by racist police, she says, a worry that nags at her in what she calls this ”podunk town.”
From the start, this entire family comes across as immensely likable, which is important if a viewer is to make it through 10 hours in their company. But ”An American Love Story” is also a work shaped by a sophisticated filmmaker, whose awareness of the complexities of an interracial romance began with her firsthand experience.
Initially, Ms. Fox planned an hourlong documentary about three interracial couples, including herself and the black man she was dating at the time. The project gradually evolved into a 3-hour film on the Wilson-Sims family and finally this 10-part series. She and her sound recordist and co-producer, Jennifer Fleming, shot a thousand hours of film of the family, sometimes camping out on the floor of Cicily and Chaney’s shared bedroom for days at a time. They follow Bill, a blues guitarist, on the road and back in Queens puttering around the kitchen. Karen, who is a human resources administrator in Manhattan, is seen in her office at the computer and at home in her bathrobe.
As Mr. Sims said recently, proving that race is never far from their lives, ”One of the things about our family is, when you go out in the world you feel that people are always watching you anyway,” so it was less of a trauma to have cameras in and out of their house for two years than it might have been for some people.
But it is more than access that accounts for the film’s resonance. Ms. Fox also shot 400 hours of on-camera interviews, some made well after the major events in the film had happened. She and the series’ editor, Jay Freund, have dazzlingly woven these interviews into the scenes of the family in action, often layering the voices over those events as if the characters were commenting on themselves. The most thoughtful and sometimes most passionate comments on race emerge from this layering technique. We hear Bill say that Cicily’s upbringing left her unprepared for what she faced at college: ”Black kids tend to group together, and she wasn’t brought up to be segregated.”
We see Cicily at Colgate, the only black student in class, and hear her say in voice-over: ”I realized the first day I got to college that I had the job of reeducating these people. Is this my job? I just want to live my life.”
Ms. Fox said of this narrative technique, ”As they live their lives, people don’t talk their feelings,” so she got them to discuss those feelings later. ”It’s a construction, but hopefully it’s true to some central reality.” This layering of voices and addition of hindsight does more than enhance the film’s social perspective. By creating a richer texture, it keeps the viewer engaged and coming back for more, avoiding the lulling pace of so many documentaries that simply pretend the filmmaker isn’t there.
Still, we hear about racism more than we see it in the series, partly because it shows the family members interacting with one another more often than with the outside world. The camera’s presence changes things, and it is impossible to say what would have happened, in public or in private, if Ms. Fox and her camera hadn’t been around. Asked about that, Ms. Wilson mentioned an episode in the film in which she and her husband kiss goodbye in the morning at the subway. A woman behind them, she recalled, was staring in their direction. ”We’re so used to being stared at I thought she was staring at us, but maybe she was looking at the camera.” (With her well-honed antenna for such things, she noticed a stare that few television viewers are likely to catch. She may be color-blind about her family, but she’s hardly naive about race.)
AND Ms. Fox recalled: ”By summer ’93 I realized we had sort of hit the glass wall. There is a point at which you can film more and more and you’ll never get more depth. The real discussions will happen behind closed doors. Certain arguments will never happen on camera.” A line is drawn, she said, defining the border of ”the subjects’ sanity.”
”It’s their protection,” she explains. ”It’s very easy to see films where there are no boundaries and you feel a sense of perversity.”
Though the family is shown with flaws, the film treats them gently. They had the right to tell Ms. Fox to turn off the camera and to ask for changes in the final cut of the film. Everyone agrees that they requested, and got, only minimal changes. A few comments that might have hurt some relatives’ feelings were deleted; Cicily asked that an entire sentence, rather than a part, be used when she vaguely describes a sensitive subject, an explosive argument that would never have happened on camera. Her father was drunk, mean and belligerent and she didn’t talk to him for three weeks afterward.
”We were a family in crisis, but we made it through, still standing,” Bill says in one of those layered interviews filmed recently. After that crisis he stopped drinking and has been sober for five years. A CD of his music has just been released; so has a soundtrack from the series. (After the series’ final episode on Thursday, Channel 13 in New York and other PBS stations will present ”An American Love Story Update With Bill Moyers,” an hourlong interview in which the family discusses the series and brings the story to the present.)
Though there are references in the series to Bill’s drinking (at one point his wife says, fairly cryptically, that she knows he has been ”on a binge”), there is only one scene in which he clearly seems to have had too much, as he sits in bed talking about how he plans to go on drinking. Not going for the most lurid, voyeuristic approach may seem unfashionable in a television era of full-throttle confessions, but ”An American Love Story” has a more serious social purpose. Ms. Fox explained what she hoped viewers would experience: ”First they’re going to see an interracial family. Eventually, at moments they’ll forget about race. And in that forgetting and remembering there will be a moment of epiphany; they’ll recognize their own racism, and their own perceptions of family.” That statement is accurate, though such lofty phrases have no place in the series itself, which remains rooted in one family’s illuminating and richly captured lives.
What is most remarkable about ”An American Love Story” may finally be the hard-nosed realism of its message. It does not pretend that racist attitudes can be wiped out with a gesture or in a generation. It presents the more disturbing idea that racism simply keeps changing along with the country. Beyond the scope of the series, the Wilson-Sims children offer proof of how attitudes need to evolve along with the country’s racial mix.
Chaney, now 18, has become a thoughtful adult since filming ended and is a women’s studies major in college. She said recently that she was going through many of the things her sister had experienced. Though Chaney went to a performing arts high school in Manhattan where the majority of students were either black or Latino, she felt pressured by them to choose a group to belong to, just as her sister had at Colgate. She said about the series: ”Growing up, I never saw anyone on television that was like myself. I think that’s important, to see there are people who are biracial, and they experience a different kind of prejudice.”
Cicily, now 26, works in development and communications at a New York music conservatory near the neighborhood where she grew up. She is engaged to be married and when asked the inevitable question about race, sounded very much like her mother’s daughter. ”I love him to death; I love him no matter what he is,” she said first. ”He’s white. Until now I haven’t dated a white man. This is just who I fell in love with.”