What makes a relationship fail? What makes it last when all odds are against it? These were two of the driving questions that impelled filmmaker Jennifer Fox to make the 10-part landmark television series, “An American Love Story,” an in-depth look at the daily life of an interracial family that began airing on PBS in September 1999.
Fox fell in love with an African-American musician when she was in her early 30s and was “genuinely shocked when the world of race in America just closed up around us. And I thought, ‘Where have I been? What naive world have I been living in?'”
That relationship ended, but Fox’s desire to understand it remained. Her quest led her to Karen Wilson, a white corporate manager, and Bill Sims, an African-American blues musician, who have been together over 30 years. For more than five years Fox, an award-winner for her documentary “Beirut: The Last Home Movie,” interviewed the couple, their parents and their two daughters Cicily and Chaney. Fox and a small film crew even moved in with the family in their Queens, NY, home for a year and a half.
Fox filmed their most personal moments, from Karen’s decision to have a hysterectomy to Cicily’s return from a semester abroad in Nigeria, where she experienced ‘reverse racism’ (being harassed for not being “black enough”). Pre-adolescent Chaney finds her first boyfriend on film, and learns to handle her attraction while dealing with her father’s protectiveness. Karen and Bill attend Karen’s 25th high school reunion, where the couple confront some of the same people who tormented them when their relationship began.
Even today, old taboos still exist in this country, where as recently as 1967, miscegenation laws outlawed marriage between African Americans and whites in 15 states. What enabled Fox, raised in an upper-middle-class Philadelphia suburb, to throw aside these taboos?
Fox attributes this in part to her unusual background. As a child, she commuted across town to a predominantly African-American neighborhood, where she attended a Quaker school and developed close friendships with some of the school’s few African-American students. For Fox, these friendships created an enduring interest in African-American life. Fox also became involved in her synagogue’s youth group and spent six months in Israel.
Her experience as a Jew sensitized Fox to the experience of being the ‘other.’ “It was quite surprising to me to realize that, as I finished this project, I don’t identify with the white majority. Being a Jewish woman is not the same as being a white woman,” she says. Jews’ “experience of prejudice” may give them “more compassion for people who are oppressed. Pain stretches the heart wider in some ways.” And yet, Fox is quick to point out, others still perceive her as white. “Jews can integrate and become invisible. Blacks can never do that,” she says. When she was dating her African-American boyfriend, she saw first hand that America is “a police nation for those people who live in black skin.”
In the film, Sims’ return to his Ohio hometown after his son is arrested on drug charges takes us fully into this experience. He revisits the streets of his childhood in a now-disintegrated community. Many of his family and old friends now either work at the nearby prison or have served time there—a fate he narrowly escaped.
Still, for all the complications mixed-race couples experience, Fox believes they also have the opportunity: “They acknowledge something that people don’t [usually] acknowledge—that the other person is different from them, even if they are the same race.”
“The thing I’ve come to realize on this project is that human nature is afraid of difference, whether that be a Jew or a black person….If we acknowledge that, and try to be mindful, I think we could make progress. But there is no cure for racism or prejudice; there is just daily, conscious efforts by individuals.”