An American Love Story, a cinema verité treatment of an interracial family in Queens, aired for five nights on the Public Broadcasting System in mid-September. Compared to the documentary about the Loud family shown twenty-five years ago, this exercise in socially conscious voyeurism scarcely created a ripple. It’s too bad, because the series turned out to be neither soap opera nor sermon but an entrancing view of a situational ethics of decency, as practiced on America’s color line.
It’s not the protagonists’ human appeal that brought out this side of them. They were, in fact, an oddly untelegenic family despite their months of exposure to the camera. Bill Sims is a black blues musician, moderately successful; he is a devoted father and husband—at least he’s always around—but you can’t help noticing after a while that despite his warm chuckles and continual presence he rarely enters into anyone’s talk or problems. One daughter, Cicily, is at Colgate, the other, Chaney, is twelve: they must have been giggly and self-conscious to begin with, and facing the camera, they often turn into goofy sitcom characters. Karen Sims, the white mother, comes across as cold and controlling, despite her lavish professions of feeling. There is a weird out-of-time, claustrophobic feeling to much of the film: no one ever seems to leave the house for long: everyone except the youngest daughter smokes madly; and the small apartment in Flushing, where most of the film takes place, looks like a refurbished set of the Honeymooners.
What fascinates is the efficacy of the Sims’s knowing yet modest approach to racism. No one clambers onto a soapbox to orate on the race problem; nor does anyone try to minimize it. The rhetoric of race is rarely even used; the Race Question becomes a matter of getting through the day, a journey, a difficult encounter. The parents are no strangers to the nastier strains of postwar racism; in 1960s Marion, Ohio, where they both grew up, Bill was routinely jailed once he began dating Karen; Karen, an unwed mother of an interracial baby, was threatened with having Cicily removed by welfare authorities. Today, the strains are more mundane, at least in New York. Yet in Florida, where Karen’s mother now lives, the Klan is enough of a presence to make it impossible for Bill and the girls to visit; and even when they drive upstate to pick up Cicily at Colgate, Bill brings along his passport to fend off any trouble with the police.
Political and scholarly pundits, white and black, treat such problems as occasions for generalization and allegory. But with the Simses, racial set pieces are drummed up only to be discarded as too cumbersome for the keener demands of making a life. Cicily, looped from a night out with her college friends, gives a tipsy paean to her parents on the lessons they’ve taught her about defying prejudice; but it comes off as a teenager’s clumsy attempt at grandiloqu...
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