In film on race, just an American Family

By Lise Funderburg

The Philadelphia Inquirer
September 12, 1999

Last spring, colleagues and acquaintances of mine began mentioning An American Love Story, an upcoming l0-hour documentary about an interracial couple and their two children. No surprise that they would tell me about it: For five years, ever since I wrote a book about black/white biracial Americans, people have asked me to talk about the mixed-race experience. Thanks, in particular, to the publisher’s insistence that my biography on the book flap include the phrase “herself biracial,” I am now, officially, a spokesmodel for biracialism.

Soon, the film’s publicist called. Send the tapes, I said, although the last thing in the world I wanted to do was to watch them.

Why? So much coverage of the inter-/bi-/multiracial experience either pathologizes or panders. So little captures the complex truths that constitute race in our society, particularly at these border-crossing fringes. What’s chronically absent is the paradoxical reality so many Americans face — one in which race is omnipresent but not omnipotent.

When I finally sat down to watch filmmaker Jennifer Fox’s documentary,. I found what I was looking for. Her series is an engaging, nuanced portrait of Bill Sims (who’s black); his wife, Karen Wilson (who’s white), and their daughters Cicily and Chaney. The series (debuting tonight on PBS) focuses on the myriad small and large dramas that constitute the family’s rife. Throughout — to my great relief — the ways that race shapes experience are neither ignored nor obsessively assumed.

I was drawn into each subplot: Bill’s music career struggles; Karen’s medical crises; Cicily’s troubles at college with both black and white students; and Chaney’s first crush. I cheered Karen’s honesty as Cicily embarked on a trip to Nigeria.

“Africa means nothing to me,” Karen said, worried about how far away her daughter would be. “It’s just another country.”

I was touched by Bill’s delight as he reflected on the same moment: “That day was one of the highlights of my life.”

But I was truly moved to see them say these things in front of each other and to see their two views peacefully, respectfully coexist.

This summer, I interviewed the Sims-Wilsons. They met me at Fox’s Manhattan office, where the walls are lined with almost 2,000 videocassettes, all of which contain footage of or about them. Fox followed them on vacations, to the grocery store, the subway. She captured squabbles and flare-ups, celebrations and sulks.

The family’s comfort level and trust in Fox is clear, but as forthcoming as they are in talking about their lives, in every episode there are moments of withholding, where much more bubbles beneath a surface grimace or anxious laugh. Of course that’s the case, says Karen Wilson, disagreeing with reviewers who have called this an “intimate” portrait. “It was like if you had your mother come over,” she says. “You’d be on good behavior.”

For all the hours Fox included in the final version, thousands still sit on the shelves. “That’s why it’s not true,” Cicily says. “I mean, think about it: Set your life to music and cut out all the dull parts.”

“When I see the film, I see Jennifer,” her father adds. “She told the story from her point of view. But the true thing is that we’re still a family. Through sickness and alcoholism and fights, we’re still a family. That’s what the series should say.”

He could have added through racism, too. Everyone in this family is aware of race — how they turn heads when they go out in public, how they’re treated differently when they’re by themselves — but it’s impossible to tease out race as the singular factor in any situation. Race is as organic as everything else that shapes their lives — love, disappointment, health, gender, wealth, chance.

That is this film’s great and fresh contribution to the conversations that still need to go on about race if we’re ever to break down the walls of color that continue to divide us.

“Any time there’s black and white, it causes conversation,” says Bill, “good, bad or indifferent.” Participating in this film, he says, was a way “to show we’re a family just like everyone else: We want the same things for our kids, we’re not a threat. And … it was an adventure,”

“A never-ending adventure,” Cicily sighs, with an early glimmer of spokesmodel fatigue.