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Imperfect Harmony
By Lise Funderburg

Mirabella
August 1999

Forbidden love! Steamy passion! Laundry! Myth meets reality in An American Love Story, Jennifer Fox's ambitious documentary about an interracial couple and their children. In her ten-hour series, Fox opts not to exploit the jungle-fever pathology typically presumed of miscegenation, but instead observes eighteen months inside a relationship that's endured nearly thirty years. The resulting portrait, debuting September 12 on PBS, locates its biggest sizzle in the subjects' kitchen, where the husband cooks family meals. Jerry Springer won't be calling.

Love Story features Bill Sims, who is black, his wife, Karen Wilson, who's white, and their daughters, Cicily and Chaney. Karen holds down an office job while Bill struggles with his music career and keeps house; twelve-year-old Chaney and twenty-year-old Cicily enter puberty and adulthood, respectively, under the camera's watchful lens. "I think of the family as a fortress that nobody else can penetrate," Cicily says, "unless they really pass the test."

Fox appears determined to demonstrate that true love, quotidian demands, and copious laughter -- all of which abound in the Wilson-Sims household -- can eclipse racism, but the larger issue of race never disappears completely.

Indeed, everyone but the reticent Chaney (who should receive special commendation for being filmed during a vivid bout of carsickness) speaks bluntly about being seen as transgressors against a larger social order. Their candor may seem harsh, but it is welcome to those of us who grew up in similar families, our mere existence regularly deemed an assault on nature. Cicily struggles with being considered black enough for blacks or white enough for whites, and her parents have experienced rejection since they met as teens in Ohio, where Bill was arrested while just visiting Karen.

The film ends on a cautionary note: A close-knit family can survive the challenges life throws down, but racism adds a particular tax. After all, a fortress, viewed from another perspective, is a prison. Fox's documentary not only elucidates but complicates, which makes it one of the truest portraits of race ever to turn up on prime time.