Bill Sims is a blues musician with a serious drinking problem who took over the household roles of child-rearing and cooking. He's black. Karen Wilson is a corporate manager, the family's primary breadwinner, but she's seriously ill and facing a hysterectomy. She's white.
Cicily, their oldest daughter, is away at an elite college and getting one painful lesson after another in elitism and race, while Chaney, their "baby," faces adolescence and her own battles with identity as she tries to start dating.
This is an American family -- the family probed, dissected and ultimately celebrated in "An American Love Story," an ambitious, sensitive and brilliant 10-hour documentary making its premiere tomorrow night on public television.
Last September, PBS almost single-handedly redeemed television from a dreadful fall season of new network series with "The Farmer's Wife," a stunning, long-form documentary look at a Nebraska farm family's heroic struggle to survive.
This fall, in the same vein, "An American Love Story" brings wisdom, courage, social responsibility and compelling storytelling to a medium badly in need of all four.
In a season when the four major commercial networks announced a lineup of 27 new series without one leading African-American character and then rushed a bunch of minor characters into the breach after the NAACP nailed them, "An American Love Story," is, if nothing else, the answer to those who cynically wonder whether public television is really worth our tax dollars. You won't see race, family and identity explored with this kind of intelligence and depth anywhere else on television.
The heart of the story
Filmmaker Jennifer Fox won two Sundance Film Festival awards for her acclaimed "Beirut: The Last Home Movie," a documentary about an aristocratic family in war-torn Lebanon. For this new film, she and co-producer/sound recordist Jennifer Fleming spent 18 months, from 1992 to 1994, living with the Wilson-Sims family. They slept on the floor of the girls' bedroom in hopes of being on hand to capture moments of family life as they happened. And, boy, did they get some.
There's the morning Bill comes in drunk after being out all night. He's wired and belligerent. As he fixes himself breakfast, he says: "Jennifer Fox, you should be dead right now. We're going to see if Miss Fox makes it out of this movie alive." Later on that same morning, he's sitting in bed explaining to Fox and Fleming how the only thing men want is sex -- all men. Fox contrasts these scenes with images of his wife wondering what her life will be like post-hysterectomy.
The film opens in 1992 in the family's middle-class apartment in a high-rise in Queens, N.Y., as the two girls prepare an annual dinner celebrating the marriage of their mom and dad.
Interviews then take us back to 1967, when the couple met in a lakeside dance hall in Ohio, where Bill was playing in a band. We get a sense of both the hostility their relationship generated even during times that were changing in terms of civil rights.
The journey at the center of Episode 1 takes place in 1993 in a rented van as Bill, Karen and Chaney travel to upstate New York to visit Cicily, who is having a hard time adjusting to life at Colgate, where some African-American students insist she essentially denounce her white mother if she wants to be a part of their group.
Cicily's pain and initial bewilderment as she engages the culture of Colgate -- both dominant white and minority black -- will open your eyes if not break your heart. At the very least, it will make you think about identity in ways you might not have.
The journey to Colgate clicks on a number of levels. It is a metaphor for upward social mobility: Cicily goes to an elite university but neither her mother nor father is a college graduate. The trip starts out in high spirits. When Bill and Chaney pick Karen up from work early on a Friday evening, she's exhausted, but she's also excited about the trip and seeing Cicily.
As the landscape turns from urban to rural and darkness gathers around the van, you start to feel the anxiety among the three about how they will be received when they stop for food and gas. If you are a white viewer, this portion of the road trip might even deliver a hint of what it feels like to be a person of color traveling in an unfamiliar place -- even today, more than a quarter-century after the Civil Rights and Public Accommodations Acts of the 1960s.
As Bill says to Fox in the van, "Being black in America is a full-time job."
A daughter's tale
Cicily's story is the most intriguing. And you can feel the film pulling in her direction despite Fox's correct decision to make the relationship of Bill and Karen the centerpiece.
In an interview this week, Fox acknowledged that she, too, felt especially attracted to Cicily's struggle to accommodate the love she feels for her family with the messages she gets at college about her white mother and black father. Some of the film's best moments are in subsequent evenings when the camera follows Cicily on a trip to Africa and later catches up with her in the house of the all-white sorority she joins.
Again, Fox is superb in taking us inside the sorority culture. In one segment, Fox interviews Cicily and her white roommate as the two talk about racial gulfs that will never be bridged while lying on a bed wrapped in the same cozy comforter.
Scenes like this and the ones that show a drunken Bill directing angry words at Fox are key in appreciating the technical chances this filmmaker took. Unlike the "invisible," fly-on-the-wall style of cinema verite in which the people being photographed act as if the camera is not there, Fox makes sure the viewer is aware of her presence. After shooting some 1,000 hours of film, she went back for and conducted 400 hours of interviews with family members and others, editing the interviews into the footage she originally shot.
Within and without
"We know from physics that everything affects everything," Fox says. "I'm both in the family and standing apart, trying to understand the family in an analytic way that informs how the series gets constructed."
Fox says the filming she did from 1992 to 1994 is the text, while the interviews she conducted afterward provide the subtext for the actions viewers see. Fox says she believes her method treats subjects in a less impersonal way than cinema verite, while being more honest with the viewer about the effects of the filmmaker and the camera.
She is absolutely right, and in that sense, "An American Love Story" is a quantum leap forward from "An American Family," the 1973 PBS documentary about the Loud family to which Fox's work will surely be compared.
Fox is also right to remind us how such a documentary is constructed from hundreds of choices. In a strict journalistic sense, "An American Love Story" is not perfect. For example, we get very little information about the family's income and finances. Some viewers might consider such data essential to understanding these lives. Also, this is a white person's view of an interracial marriage. I suspect a black filmmaker might have seen this family in a very different way.
But, as Fox puts it, " 'An American Love Story' is not the truth about this family; 'An American Love Story' is my vision of the family.
"When this project evolved into episodic television, I thought of it as stories or dramas. I personally do not make a huge distinction between a documentary and fiction. I think that we have to acknowledge that all film is a kind of fictionalization, because the reality is that I shot 1,000 hours of the Wilson-Sims' lives. But that is a minute number of hours in their real lives during that 18 months. And then I took that 1,000 hours and boiled it down to 10. So, there's an enormous amount of authorship in this film, and that author is me."
And I say, author, author, bravo, bravo.
What: "An American Love Story"
Where: PBS (MPT, Channels 22 and 67)
When: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. tomorrow through Thursday