In a perfect world, the overworked accolade “landmark television event” would be reserved exclusively for the likes of Jennifer Fox’s “An American Love Story,” an intimate epic set to air as a 10-part miniseries next fall on PBS. Nine completed 54-minute episodes of the extraordinary documentary are premiering in marathon presentations at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival and will appear next month at the Berlin Film Festival.
By turns enormously engaging, deeply affecting and profoundly unsettling, Fox’s magnum opus is a cinema-verite study of an exceptional family. The first episode introduces Bill Sims, an African-American blues musician, and Karen Wilson, a white corporate manager, as they celebrate their wedding anniversary with their two children — 19-year-old Cicily and 12-year-old Chaney — in their Queens, N.Y., apartment. Over the course of a year and a half, “American Love Story” charts the mundane details and momentous events that make this family so unique — and, at the same time, so ordinary.
Oddly enough, Fox waits until her final episode before allowing Bill and Karen to give detailed accounts of their early days as a couple in their native Ohio. (The still-incomplete Episode Six, which reportedly deals with Karen’s reunion with her emotionally distant mother and “redneck” stepfather, may offer additional information.) Right from the start, however, the couple describes the pressures and prejudices they continue to face whenever they venture far from their multi-ethnic neighborhood. They reveal that they moved to Queens because “it wouldn’t have been fair to the kids” to have remained back in Karen’s hometown of Marion, Ohio.
Throughout much of “American Love Story,” the Sims-Wilson family copes with problems that have little or nothing to do with its racial makeup. Almost all of Episode Five, for example, is devoted to Chaney’s attempts to convince her skeptical parents that she is old enough to start dating. Other episodes deal with Karen’s health problems and Bill’s periods of deep, dark depression.
During a frustrating period of underemployment, Bill goes on drinking binges, leading to a shockingly funny (and ineffably horrific) sequence in which he gleefully taunts the documentarians: “Yeah, I’m an alcoholic. So what?” That he eventually is able to stop drinking is perhaps the most poignant evidence of the love that binds the Sims-Wilson family.
Outside of the family, however, Bill, Karen and their children are repeatedly confronted with signs of racial divisions in America. It’s clear that, after nearly three decades as a couple and almost 20 years of marriage, Bill and Karen have developed sound instincts for dealing with potentially explosive situations. But it’s equally clear that some slights can still surprise and wound them.
Cicily has some rude awakenings while attending Colgate University, where she finds that, because of her mixed parentage, she is treated with a coolness bordering on hostility by her few black classmates. Ironically, her white classmates are so accepting of her, she’s invited to join a sorority.
In Episode Three — very likely the segment that will ignite the most impassioned discussion when PBS airs the series — Cicily spends a semester abroad in Nigeria with a group of black, white and racially mixed Colgate students. Before her departure, she assumes — and her father hopes — that she will be able to learn more about her “roots” during a semester in the “motherland.” But Cicily winds up learning a lot more about the bitter resentments of her black classmates, who are enraged to discover that, even in Africa, whites receive preferential treatment.
Fox provides a jolting emotional climax for Episode Three by weaving various interviews into a “Rashomon”-like account of a nasty altercation between Cicily and a black male classmate during a bus trip.
Here and elsewhere, “American Love Story” underscores both the strengths and limitations of this particular form of nonfiction filmmaking. The interviews are revealing and mesmerizing. But, they also remind that no matter how much time documentarians may spend with their subjects, it’s highly probable that the most important events will occur when the camera is off. On a couple of occasions, it appears that Fox has tried to compensate by “staging” minor events. But these flourishes are wisely kept to an absolute minimum.
Indeed, “American Love Story” is sometimes truthful to a fault. A few episodes feel padded with well-observed but repetitive and unnecessary details. Bill is appealingly eloquent in many of his blunt-spoken comments, but he doesn’t always bother to express himself as audibly as he might.
Much is said about Bill’s relationship with a woman long before he met Karen, a relationship that produced two children. (Alton, Bill’s only son, is introduced shortly before he begins a prison sentence for drug dealing.) But “American Love Story” is inexplicably vague about what happened to Bill’s ex-lover and how (or if) she raised their children on her own.
In the end, however, the minor flaws mean little when judged against the major achievements of “An American Love Story.” Given the limitations of a small budget and a two-person film crew, the production values are remarkably fine. Even the slightly off-putting and pretentious title is forgivable, largely because this particular love story really does have a lot to say about American life in living black-and-white. By year’s end, the Sims-Wilson family may be the most popular nonfiction stars to hit TV since the Loud clan fell apart on camera in 1973’s “An American Family.”