A Sept. 9 Style article on the PBS series "An American Love Story" misinterpreted Census Bureau data on interracial marriages. In 1997, there were a total of 311,000 married couples with one black and one white spouse, an increase of more than 50 percent since 1990. The bureau does not track the proportion of each year's interracial marriages. (Published 09/16/1999)
Bill's already found a table by the window when Karen comes dashing into the sushi place on Northern Boulevard in Queens, straight from work in her heels and managerial black jacket, and gives him a peck and a squeeze. They chat about her commute and about the weekend's plans while trying to figure out what to order.
She apologizes at one point for having stepped on one of his remarks. "That's okay, you've done it all my life," is Bill's genial response. They've been married for 20 years, have lived in the same nearby two-bedroom apartment all that time, and everything about them--the easy banter, the knowing glances--signals ordinary couplehood, except for two things.
The first: Bill Sims is black and Karen Wilson is white, which makes them part of a significant increase in marriage across racial lines, yet still part of a tiny minority. The second: Some years back, friends knew a woman who wanted to make a documentary film about interracial families. People kept telling the filmmaker, "You've got to meet Bill and Karen."
The upshot is that the bearded guy in the baseball cap and the sandy-haired lady in heels, to whom no one in the restaurant is paying the slightest attention, and their daughters are about to have their lives unfold on millions of TV screens. Public television's latest epic, "An American Love Story," by filmmaker Jennifer Fox, makes its debut Sunday and continues over the next four nights; for 10 hours, viewers will watch the Wilson-Sims clan grapple with the stuff all families encounter and the stuff that most families never have to face.
Fox and a co-producer who recorded the sound virtually moved into their home and let the cameras roll for 1,000 hours over 18 months, and now Bill and Karen and Cicily and Chaney will be recognizable figures at the C-Town supermarket and on the No. 7 subway. Strangers will know about the mundane and the meaningful parts of their lives, from how Karen looks slouching around in her bathrobe to how Cicily responds to classmates' demands that she declare herself either white or black.
"In New York, people won't say anything," Karen declares, hoping that's true. New Yorkers are too blase to gawk or yell at instant celebrities, right? Then she confesses, "We really don't know what to expect."
One thing about having bucked society's expectations ever since they met, though: they've acquired tough hides. Maybe Bill will be accused of betraying the African American community by marrying out, maybe Karen will get called offensive names, maybe people will even give them flak for smoking cigarettes around the kids. They're used to fending off odd looks, disapproving murmurs and worse. "I really don't care what people say; they've said it all already," Karen says, with a shrug.
So when Fox landed an "American Playhouse" grant a few years ago--an indication that this once-modest project would become a Major Television Event-- she offered the Wilson-Simses the chance to withdraw. "I gave them the choice and meant it: 'If you want out, tell me now,' " Fox recalls. "They said, 'What are you talking about? Are you crazy? Going through all this for nothing?' They were not turning back."
It's a little odd to be talking in a restaurant when their apartment, whose narrow kitchen and homey living room are about to become familiar to people across this country and Europe, is only six blocks away. But while Bill and Karen were unfazed by having two filmmakers sleeping on their floor, they've balked at ushering a reporter into their brick high-rise. "This is a blind date," Karen explains. "With Jennifer, we have a relationship."
True, the history of "An American Love Story" reflects a relationship between an unusually open couple and an unusually driven filmmaker.
When she's not following her subjects around, teaching film at NYU or jetting off to Sundance or Berlin, Jennifer Fox lives in a TriBeCa loft and works in a slightly grungy production office in downtown Manhattan. The raw materials of "An American Love Story" are still much in evidence there: Shelves of labeled videotape ("Bill's Trip to Ohio," "Cicily Comes Home") stretch down the hallway and around the corner. "Want to see our database? We're really proud of it," Fox offers, clicking at a computer keyboard. It took eight months to log in every scene and interview she'd shot, cross-referencing all the topics discussed, in order to guide the platoons of editors working on the footage. "In a project this big, the real key is keeping track of where everything is."
At 39, about a decade younger than Bill and Karen, she describes herself as "very much a chameleon. . . . I always loved crossing cultural lines, going into different worlds." She'd done that professionally, making an award-winning film about a Lebanese family titled "Beirut: The Last Home Movie," then following a Tibetan Buddhist lama with a video camera. She's had a cosmopolitan personal life as well, studying Buddhism though her family is Jewish, traveling through Asia and Latin America.
Maybe that explains why Fox didn't think much of it when, almost a decade ago, she fell in love with an African American musician, a bass player. "It's the '90s, y'know? The world is liberal," she remembers telling herself. "Then suddenly Race with a capital R came down in my face," and started her thinking.
Her lover had trouble flagging down taxis. He was pounced on by cops as he sprinted down the street to move his car on an alternate-side parking day. Her family was troubled by the relationship; shocked, she cut off contact with her parents for months. "It was almost like I was deluded or something; I thought I was living in a different world than I was living in," Fox says. "It's very easy, when you're white, to think things have changed and racism is declining, because you've never experienced it."
Bill and Karen--it's impossible for anyone who's seen "An American Love Story" to call them anything else--knew all about such things. Their friendship and subsequent romance scandalized blue-collar Ohio (he's from Marion; she's from even-smaller Prospect) in the late '60s. She was shunned by former friends and neighbors; he had to be bailed out constantly as local police followed and repeatedly arrested him; their dog was poisoned and their car went up in flames. Their lack of interest, as '60s kids, in getting married--they waited until Cicily was 6--didn't endear them to their communities, either. They left their families and friends behind in 1976 when they decamped for New York, where she's now a corporate manager and he's a blues musician with a regular gig at a Village club. Their only regret, Bill says, is that they didn't move sooner.
They knew everything Fox was just learning. Though her relationship ended after two years, she decided to make a one-hour documentary featuring three interracial couples. When she asked Bill and Karen if they'd participate, "It seemed like an adventure, something interesting to do," Bill says. "And a way for us to get a point across."
They hoped they could show the price of the intolerance that dogged them and still plagues their children, who have to contend with mistrust from both blacks and whites. They wanted to demonstrate that successful families come in many forms. It was an election year and Bill was tired of hearing certain politicians invoke family values. "We knew they weren't talking about me and my family," he says. "But we have family values."
So with $50,000 wangled from the National Endowment for the Arts, Fox began shooting in 1992, tagging along as the family picked up Cicily from college, attended a high school reunion, endured Karen's hysterectomy and Bill's treatment for alcoholism. Cicily spent a tense semester in Nigeria, Bill visited a son from a previous relationship who'd been arrested for selling drugs, and Fox and her camera followed. The film is not strictly cinema verite; it includes extensive interviews, voice-overs, family photos and archival material.
It didn't take Fox long to decide that she didn't need any other couples in her story, and that the story could not be contained in an hour. PBS had once before portrayed middle-class life in startling detail; in 1973 its landmark series "An American Family" introduced the fascinatingly dysfunctional Louds of Santa Barbara, Calif. Fox had watched it, raptly, at 14. Now she was chronicling an updated and multicultural version, an American family of the '90s.
It was less difficult than one might imagine, all parties say, for a couple of women with video cameras and tape recorders to move in for a week or two at a stretch, constant shadows who asked endless questions. The Wilson-Simses "were very used to having people sleeping on their floor," Fox says. "They're always taking in stray musicians, or a cousin from Ohio is visiting for a month. They love adopting people."
It mattered, too, that Fox and her sound recordist, Jennifer Fleming, were women in a household with two daughters. "It was more like family," Karen explains. "My girls and Jennifer and Jen were like, 'Can you fix my hair?' 'Who's doing the dishes tonight?' They traded clothes."
There are documentarians who maintain the traditional distance, who are strictly observers, filming what they see and letting the chips fall--whether their subjects appreciate the results or not. Fox is not among them. From the first, she pledged not to shoot events if the Wilson-Simses objected. Though all agreed that the film shouldn't shy away from tough questions or sanitize reality, the family also had the right to approve the finished product. "I put them first," Fox says. "I really felt like, if they can't live with it, having their lives totally exposed, I don't want to do it."
She is unrepentant about this. "I don't think the film was damaged by our relationship; it's a product of our relationship," she maintains. "I can love them and still include the positive and the negative."
There was no other reward for Bill and Karen and their kids but to feel they'd contributed to a worthwhile endeavor--no payment for their participation, no product to promote. A deal for an accompanying book, which might have brought the family some income, fell through. Only the soundtrack CD, to which Bill contributed several bluesy numbers, and his own new CD called "Bill Sims"--both released by a Warner Bros. subsidiary called PBS Records--have the potential to bring any financial payback, and the odds against that are substantial.
In fact, at many points during the past seven years, they must have wondered if the film was going to be seen at all. "An American Love Story" cost roughly $3 million, "in the realm of television, a tiny amount to spend on 10 hours of programming," says Barbara Ludlam, managing director at American Playhouse, which provided $1.2 million. With the hustling endemic to independent filmmaking, Fox managed to assemble an assortment of smaller grants from foundations and the Independent Television Service. "She speaks quietly, but there's steel behind it," Ludlam says.
Still, there was a six-month period when Fox ran out of money, had to shut down her office, lay off her colleagues and live on $200-a-week unemployment checks. Meanwhile, the number and length of episodes she was authorized to produce kept bouncing around--she could shoot 13 half-hours; no, 13 hours; no, nine. Her company, Zohe Films, is still in hock, and even though "An American Love Story" has been hailed at international film festivals and sold in Europe, Fox is in need of a job.
She's probably correct, though, to talk about her relationship to her subjects as "a deep partnership." Through the inevitable ups and downs, Bill says, "we were going to see it through if it turned out to be 20 hours."
Right, Karen says. "Jennifer made a huge commitment. Years. You couldn't leave her hanging."
'Forgetting and Remembering'
By now they are not only partners but friends. They travel to New Orleans together every year for the jazz festival. Fox spends Christmas with the Wilson-Simses; they go to her loft for "a very eclectic, multicultural, multi-religious Passover."
Still, when the time came to show the first four completed episodes to the family, "I can't say I wasn't anxious," Fox recalls. They sat in an editing room and watched on a monitor while she watched them.
Through all the months of shooting, "We'd thought, my God, this is boring; no one's going to want to watch this," Karen says. "Road trips and wallpapering and watching kids grow up--who's interested? But Jennifer made a nice story of it."
Some scenes were hard to relive, like Cicily's African semester, in which students slid into stark racial side-choosing. "So upsetting," Karen says. "We'd heard all about it, but to see it is different. What do you say to her? I'll never understand. Bill will never understand."
But the only excisions they say they requested were minor--"a few not-so-glowing remarks about family members," Bill says. Otherwise, "What you see is what's there. It's the truth."
Census Bureau statistics show that since 1990, the number of marriages each year between blacks and whites has nearly doubled, reaching 311,000 in 1997, or 13 percent of that year's weddings. They offer an intriguing lens through which to look at the ever-perplexing role of race in America. (A variety of outreach programs will be using this series to foster classroom and community discussions and there's a Web site--www.pbs.org/lovestories--for and about families who are "negotiating differences" of various kinds.)
"If you watch long enough, at first you see a black man and a white woman," Fox says. "After a while, you just see parents. And then you remember. In that forgetting and remembering, I think there will be a moment of 'Oh.' "
And after that moment? Simple tolerance is all Bill and Karen hope for. "If you don't like me, that's fine," Karen says. "Just tolerate me--and stay out of my face."
She says it with a chuckle. She and Bill don't mind talking about the big issues, but they'd just as soon schmooze about family stuff, like having kids go off to college--Chaney, now 18, is a sophomore upstate--and Karen's weekend plans to go bridal-gown shopping with Cicily, now 26. An administrator at a music school in Queens, Cicily is getting married in May to "a nice young man," Karen says.
In light of the issues the family's been talking about on camera all these years, it must be asked: Is Cicily's fiance a nice young white man or a nice young black man? Asian? Hispanic? "Just a nice young man," Karen says firmly.
CAPTION: Karen Wilson and Bill Sims opened up their home and lives to a filmmaker for the five-part documentary "An American Love Story."
CAPTION: Wilson and Sims, with daughters Cicily and Chaney. "At first you see a black man and a white woman," filmmaker Jennifer Fox says. "After a while, you just see parents."
CAPTION: Karen Wilson and Bill Sims have been a couple for over 30 years.
CAPTION: Jennifer Fox began filming the family in 1992.