An American Love Story
In 1990, acclaimed documentary filmmaker Jennifer Fox met and fell in love with a black man, a bass player who performed in a blues band with one of her friends. “I had the naive sense that it was the ’90s and that racism was on the decline,” says Fox, 39, who grew up in a Jewish home and attended a multicultural Quaker grammar school in a black neighborhood of Philadelphia. “[So] I was genuinely shocked when the world of race in America just closed up around us.”
Pedestrians stopped in the streets and stared at the couple or turned away during their vacation in the Catskills; police frisked Fox’s boyfriend or pulled the lovers over for no apparent reason; a relative told Fox that her relationship was “ruining the family.” After two years of togetherness, the race wars helped to tear the couple apart.
Somewhere in the middle of her dispair, Fox decided to make a film. “I felt, my God, we were suffering so much, and I wanted to see how people crossed the racial divide and survived as a couple,” she says.
The result is her extraordinary, 10-part cinema verite-inspired documentary, “An American Love Story,” which explores a biracial relationship that has persevered for more than three decades. The series airs for five consecutive nights on PBS beginning Sept. 12.
In August 1992, Fox moved into Bill Sims’ and Karen Wilson’s modest, two-bedroom apartment in Queens, N.Y., and shot 1,000 hours of interviews and verite footage over a year and a half. The series introduces Bill, a black blues musician, and Karen, a white corporate manager, who met in 1967 in small-town Ohio, married in 1979 and have two daughters. During their early years together, Karen was ostracized by her white friends; the couple’s dog was killed, their car was set afire; and the windows of Sims’ rehearsal space were shattered by bricks. Observers pressured the couple to give up their eldest daughter for adoption; Bill and Karen refused and, in 1976, they moved to Queens, which, they hoped, would provide a more tolerant place to raise their children.
“An American Love Story” follows the Sims as they prevail through Bill’s alcoholism and depression; Karen’s near death from fibroid tumors; their daughter’s alienation from both white and black students at college and her battle with malaria after a semester abroad in Africa.
Through it all, the unconventional family proved stronger than the Louds, the white, affluent family that publically fell apart in the groundbreaking 1973 PBS documentary, “An American Family.”
“An American Love Story” is an unconventional film by an unconventional filmmaker who perceives herself a Jew, and therefore, outside of the white, American mainstream.
Fox’s career began in 1981, after just a year of film school, with a frantic telephone call from a NYU friend and classmate, Gaby Bustros. Bustros had just read shocking news about her Lebanese Christian family on the front page of the Washington Post: Her Beirut family home, a sprawling, 200-year-old Ottoman palace, had been hit by 17 shells during the Lebanese civil war. Bustros immediate flew home. When she returned to attend to some business six months later, she riveted Fox with stories of her aristocratic family’s last stand in their ancestral mansion.
Six weeks later, Fox dropped out of film school and flew to Lebanon to film “Beirut: The Last Home Movie,” in the sprawling manse just 1,200 yards from the Green Line, which separated the combatants in the civil war. Amid bombing and machine gun fire, she captured the Bustros’ as they attempted to carry on life as usual, eating in the formal dining hall, repairing shattered windows, sipping coffee in the ruined garden.
The documentary won high praise from critics, seven international awards and was televised in more than 17 countries. But Fox, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder upon her return, vowed to never again cover a war.
“An American Love Story,” she feels, explores a different kind of heroism. In the Wilson-Sims household, “Everybody in the family is a different color…[and thus] has different experiences in the world,” Fox says. “They are forced to acknowledge, in fact, what is true for all of us: That we cannot completely understand the experience of the other, whether the difference be gender, age, class, religion, culture or race … [It’s a] radical thing … to say, ‘I acknowledge that I cannot completely understand you, but I can try,’ and that’s a lifelong pursuit.”