A CONVERSATION WITH JENNIFER FOX
The producer of AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY talks about why
Q: Is it true that you were initially motivated to make this film because you yourself had been in an interracial relationship?
FOX: Yes, I fell in love with an African American man when I was in my early 30s and I 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?" And I realized well, I'm white, so how would I know that racism is alive and well in America? But when you become attached to a black man, you get to experience racism. And I could not believe that this was the same world I had been living in before I met this man. I really wanted to understand it, to understand how people survived against all that social pressure. We're not together anymore - for a number of reasons, only some of which have to do with race - but the desire to understand remained and also to understand how any couple builds a successful relationship and family.
Q: Would you say that understanding is the underlying message of this film?
FOX: Understanding and acceptance. I think what this family has to offer is that they acknowledge something that people don't acknowledge, which is that "the other person is different from them," even if they are the same race. In the Wilson-Sims' case, everybody in the family is a different color from the other and has different experiences in the world because of that fact. Therefore 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. Now, that's a radical thing to me; to say, "I acknowledge that I cannot completely understand you, but I can try, and that's a lifelong pursuit. And I can love you including the difference, including what I don't understand." So it's really about accepting differences and loving the unknown in each other.
Q: Comparisons between your film and the classic 1970s series, An American Family, are inevitable. Talk a little bit about the differences between the two films and the two families.
FOX: Well, in a kind of nutshell, I think An American
Family was about the demise of the American "dream
family," and AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY is about how
love and family do
Q: Is that why you chose cinéma vérité to tell their story? Because you wanted people to see the daily process of all the things you've mentioned: the acceptance, the understanding, the values?
FOX: Yes, except that isn't exactly what we did cinematically. In terms of technique, An American Family was classic cinéma vérité, where the filmmakers make an agreement to stand apart and away from the subjects, and the subjects agree to ignore the presence of the camera, which I don't think is something people really can do. In vérité, the whole weight of the thing is to observe external actions, not explain the feelings involved or the thought behind it. You don't get to the heart or soul of the person by simply watching what they do, and I think vérité can be off-putting in that sense. But An American Family certainly was ground breaking at the time. It actually ushered in a whole period of personal revelation in our culture and on TV. I think it's really the predecessor of the talk show.
Q: Isn't AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY the same sort of thing, at least in terms of how it's crafted?
FOX: No, because our series is by no means classic vérité and doesn't pretend to be. We became a part of their lives; they sometimes talked to the camera while we were filming; we interspersed the recording of events with lots of interviews. It was an effort to experience the family, not just watch them experience life. So if anything, we wanted to emulate the aspect of An American Family that was about forging a new form of television. Before that series, TV in this country was still very much in the 1950s/60s mode. Sitcoms and dramas and talk shows were about plastic kinds of people: it wasn't ER, it was Marcus Welby; it wasn't All in the Family, it was Father Knows Best; and it wasn't Oprah, it was Dinah Shore. An American Family was a unique kind of soap opera where there were no clear-cut villains and heroes and not everyone was beautiful. That was a major breakthrough.
Q: But it seemed that viewers were meant to - or at any rate, came to - dislike the Louds [the subjects of An American Family]: dislike them as a couple and a family, despite their having all the enviable middle class trappings.
FOX: People accused the Louds of being cold and superficial. But we all would appear cold and distant and unlikable under those circumstances. I don't think we were ever given a chance to like those people, because the nature of the form made them self-conscious and didn't reveal very much about them. Pure verité is cold because the viewer only sees people's actions. And people don't speak their feelings and their motivation as they go about doing things in ordinary life. So, I believe that interviews are really necessary to provide a three dimensional view of a human being "to get underneath the subject so to speak." In dramatic terms it is as if the verité is the text and the interviews are the subtext. In drama you can write both text and subtext but in documentary you need to combine verité and interviews to achieve a more complete experience of who you are watching.
Q: Are the Wilson-Sims a "likable" family?
FOX: Yes, and for an interesting reason. I think one of the values of AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY, and one of the values of them as a couple, is they really are pretty ordinary. They live in an ordinary two bedroom apartment and they've got to come up with the mortgage, they've got to figure out how to pay for the girls' schooling, and you get to see that they're not squashed by it. They're still people with joy. They still have creative outlets. And so far, audiences [at film festivals and private screenings] have loved them, which has shocked them - and me, too! Not that we didn't think they would like them, but they just adore them. I've seen audiences go, "Thank you for opening your lives; you have something to teach us." And I think it's because they are so ordinary, and yet they have some things that are really worth emulating, in the sense of endurance, working at a relationship and their very good child rearing talents.
Q: Doesn't that bring us back to the pre-American Family ideal: the warm, loving family with good values...are they a kind of interracial Ozzie and Harriet?
FOX: [laughter] Oh, no, no, no...in fact one of the episodes of the series is titled "We Were Never Ozzie and Harriet." And as far as content is concerned: one thing this series is not is politically correct; they're not even the "perfect" interracial couple. I didn't want to make Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? These are decent people who have something to say and they say it with a dignity that I think is valuable. And this is what I was referring to when I talked about a new form of television.
Q: How so?
FOX: An American Family paved the way for imperfection and candor and naturalness; it legitimized the anti-hero for TV. And the TV environment has evolved over the past 30 years as a climate of "let-it-all-hang-out" and "make-it-fast-and-cool" and "let's-capitalize-on-the-moment," with everything moving at 90 miles an hour. The problem with current television is that it reflects images that don't look anything like our lives. Either the people appear as all good or all bad, but that doesn't reflect the complexity of what we are actually living. So, I believe a kind of schizophrenia is occurring; a gap between who we really are and who the media is telling us we are. I believe television should provide a way in which we can reflect on our own lives and the dilemmas we face. I don't think this has to be a painful process. In AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY we let the audience get involved in real characters they will become curious about and "hooked on" and want to know more about; to get involved in small family dramas that are complex and ambiguous; and that allow the viewer to reflect on how they would solve those problems or how they feel about their own lives. I hope this series can motivate the viewer to think about television in a different way. I think AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY can awaken people's hunger for a new kind to storytelling.
Q: Which sort of brings us back to this couple and who they are. What is it that makes the story of Karen and Bill a quintessentially American love story, rather than a universal love story?
FOX: What is quintessentially American is the division of black and white and the social history of African Americans in this country, and the taboo of crossing those lines. And of course, the pain and suffering that has gone on for the last four hundred years around crossing those lines. So what is really special here is that Bill and Karen represent American history in their lineage. Bill's parents picked cotton in Georgia; they were sharecroppers, and they moved to Ohio to get away from the racism of the South after Bill's father was in the Army in World War II. And on Karen's side, her grandparents were white sharecroppers from Michigan who migrated to Ohio to work their own farm.
Q: It's almost as if history drew them together.
FOX: Well, when Bill and Karen met in 1967, it was at the crux of change in race relations in America and they fought that battle in their own way. They were young and strong-willed kids, and their collective history mirrors American history and changing race relations. And at the same time, their story, like all relationship stories, is universal - which was the point of making this series. The reason I wanted to follow one interracial family for a year or more, is that I figured if people watched them long enough, they would eventually forget about race and just see a couple and two great daughters and two good parents - then they would see race again, then they would forget it again. They would have the combined experience of transcending race, crossing racial lines, and confronting their own prejudices - and hopefully, in the end, seeing the universal values this family represents.
Q: You talk about the taboos of crossing racial lines. As a devil's advocate question: why challenge those divisions, if it's so hard? Why did Karen and Bill do it? Why did you?
FOX: I don't think that one can respect the stupidity of racism or sexism or religious contempt. I don't think one can say one is a moral person and listen to racism. It's not that I'm heroic for crossing racial lines, or that Karen and Bill are heroic. They met, they liked each other, they were friends first and then they fell in love - and the social environment kind of collapsed on top of them and said "no," but they cared enough about each other not to take that social "no" for a personal answer. It wasn't an impulse to rebel, it was a determination to love.
Q: But that was an extraordinary determination - and it did end up being a kind of rebellion, didn't it?
FOX: Yes, and I'm not saying everybody should marry a person of a different race nor am I selling interracial relationship. I just don't think that any preconceived rules should manage our lives. And I do think that Karen and Bill are heroes in their own way, because they survived. Maybe because of Karen's fierceness and Bill's open heartedness; the two balance each other really well. And they've created a very positive relationship that gets better every day. In a sense, they have won not only the battle of race in America, but they've won the battle of relationship, which I sometimes think is even harder. That's why AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY is really about people struggling to find love within themselves and in a family and in the world.
Ironically when people in America see Bill and Karen they feel that as a couple they should not exist, they would appear to have nothing in common. But, the more you know them, the more it is apparent that underneath their skin they share so many things -- values, beliefs, aspirations -- that the core of their relationship is based on similarity, not difference at all. It's really as simple as the age old phrase "you can't judge a book by it's cover." What Karen and Bill prove is that in a couple what really matters is sharing values not characteristics such as religion, class, culture or race.
Q: You and your co-producer spent a year and a half virtually living with the family. What sorts of impressions of yours and dynamics of theirs didn't make it to the screen?
FOX: Oh, there's a lot, a lot. They're infinitely more complex than ten hours of on-screen time could allow us to show - individually and collectively, as a family. We shot a thousand hours of footage over eighteen months. That in itself represents a drop in the bucket of their experiences during that time. When you reduce it even further to ten hours, well, it's like one side of a multi faceted prism. You're only seeing one little side of something that may have a million sides. But I think that what does appear on-screen is some of the essence of family, some of the essence of love, the ease they have with each other and the way they cope with both ordinary and extraordinary difficulties. It's a slice of life in the truest sense.
Q: Let's talk a bit about Karen and Bill's daughters, Cicily and Chaney. Often, when people cite their objections to mixed marriage, the first thing they say is, "What about the children?" Well, what about these children? Are they bitter? Are they messed up? Do they see themselves as black or white, or something in between?
FOX: On the contrary, not only are they not bitter or messed up, they're unusually bright, warm, funny people, and they both have a maturity and courage beyond their years because their circumstances have forced them to live a kind of examined life that a lot of people never do. They were raised to know that the world was going to see them as black. And yet they're biracial in their hearts. They're black and white. And that's very clear in the fact that they've refused to disassociate from the white part of them. Actually these girls have a lot more compassion for other people and knowledge about life because they have been forced to see the world through a very complex and painful lens. I remember Karen once saying when asked how she could bring biracial daughters into the world, that all people have to face problems and suffering. No one can make it through this world exempt. No parent can protect any child from facing some suffering. That's the human experience.
Q: How do Cicily and Chaney deal with their particular circumstances?
FOX: In one of the episodes, we travel with Cicily, the oldest daughter, on a college trip to Africa, and it's clear that racial identity is her dilemma; it's not that she identifies only with blacks; she identifies with everyone, and therefore is put on the spot with everyone - the Africans she's visiting, the African Americans she's traveling with, and the others who are part of their group. I think both Cicily and Chaney are at that point in their lives where society is saying, "You have to choose." But you can no more disown your mother than you can disown your right hand. And you can no more disown your father than you can disown your left hand. People get into enormous pain trying to do that, and as different as the girls are as people, I think they share a determination not to be divided - either within themselves or from their parents.
Q: Yet we live in a divided culture. I think one of the most distressing things about television today is that it is more racially polarized and riddled with racial stereotypes than it ever was - even when blacks were less visible on TV. AN AMERICAN LOVE STORY is about the ultimate racial mixing. So what I'm asking is, who is the audience for this series, and what do you want them to take away from it?
FOX: Well again, there's a very clear message in the new form this series takes. I agree with you about the stereotypes and the racial polarization, and I think it's part of the way that commercial television summarizes and sensationalizes life and events and people. We do it to fit things into a ten or 20-minute segment, and the whole idea is to create high drama with a sensational summary. My belief and my approach are the opposite. It's that life is infinite and complex and contradictory. And the value of what we who work in television can do is to explore that complexity and contradiction. So I'm doing a very perverse thing for television. I believe that if you sit within a family in the most ordinary aspects of their lives, you'll see that there's drama there. And I think people will watch, because the form is radical. It's about real, human experience and real human family stories. I think the audience is everyone who wants to see reality without puff or polish. And whether they realize it or not, it's for everyone who wants to see themselves.
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BREAKING OUT OF THE BOX
LAWS OF THE LAND
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