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Cicily Wilson '93 and her family are the subject of a nine-hour PBS documentary

Cicily Wilson '93 (left) and her sister Chaney Sims (right) celebrate the anniversary of their parents Bill Sims and Karen Wilson. The family is the subject of an upcoming nine-part PBS documentary produced by Jennifer Fox (right, center) and Jennifer Fleming.
by James Leach

Cicily Wilson '93 is about to go public.

Early in 1998, PBS and American Playhouse will broadcast a nine-part series that documents a year and a half in the lives of Cicily, her parents Bill Sims and Karen Wilson, and Cicily's younger sister Chaney Sims.

An American Love Story is edited from more than 1,100 hours of videotape taken of the family during 1992 and 1993. Intercut with footage taken in the family home in Flushing, NY, and in rural Ohio, where her parents met, are scenes from Cicily's life on campus, her study abroad on the Nigeria study group, and her graduation in 1993.

Writes filmmaker Jennifer Fox, who has invested five years of her life in the project through her Zohe Film Productions: “An American Love Story is a real-life documentary series about a black man and a white woman who have struggled for 30 years against the racial stereotypes and societal prejudices that have tried to divide them.”

Says Cicily, as she anticipates the release of the series: “We never really thought of it as a huge commitment — just to live our life and have somebody watch us do it. The real commitment will come when it's on TV. Who knows what will happen then? That's when we'll wonder, `Why did we do this?'”

The Zohe studios in lower Manhattan are lined with shelves of videotape amid the editing terminals. “It's like going to the twilight zone when you visit,” says Wilson.” It's all about you and your family, and people are there to look at you all day long.” It took the producers eight months simply to categorize and label all the tape and enter it into the computerized system. The around-the-clock editing process lasted for months.

Originally envisioned as a one-hour program that would examine the lives of three families, the project grew in scope and narrowed in focus when Fox was introduced to Bill Sims (a blues musician) through a mutual friend who is a singer and songwriter. “Jennifer thinks we are the more interesting family,” says a modest Cicily.” We don't, but she does.”

A 47-minute reel of select footage from the filming reveals what Fox and her colleague and former student Jennifer Fleming found so fascinating about the family. In video and through interviews the viewer is taken to the small Ohio town where Karen grew up in an open and accepting family, and where she first experienced racial prejudice as she fell in love with Bill and gave birth to Cicily.

The family of three moved to Flushing, Queens, an accepting, multi-racial, middle class community. On camera, in a matter-of-fact, conversational tone that grew from spending countless hours sharing their home as well as their lives with the filmmakers, Karen and Bill describe their love for one another, their marriage in 1979, their love and concern for their daughters. The couple's parents describe Karen and Bill's courtship and wedding, intercut with family videos of the event, and the viewer glimpses another generation of the story.

In one revealing, extemporaneous conversation with her father, Cicily says the color of her skin is like a deck of cards, “I've got some kings and queens and jacks and aces,” she says proudly. “I've got a flush,” and Bill laughs in appreciation.

Karen's honesty and her deep affection for her daughters emerges throughout, and is underscored when Cicily prepares to leave on the study group to Nigeria. The entire family takes her to the airport, and the camera catches the intimacy, agony and anxiety of the farewell. Cicily and her classmates describe the tensions of their time together (“Race came up,” explains Cicily), and Fox layers that with scenes of the family dealing with Karen's illness back home, creating a sequence that mirrors the complexities of the family's life.

At home, years later, Cicily and Chaney recreate a setting from the Cotton Club for an annual celebration of their parents' anniversary, and the camera follows their preparations through the arrival of their parents and ends in a natural, reflective moment. A reporter and photographer from The New York Times squeezed into the family's tiny apartment to witness that event and its filming for a story that appeared in March.

Bill told Times reporter William Grimes: “I wanted to take away some of the mystery surrounding interracial relationships. I wanted the film to show that we're doing the same things as everyone else, raising kids, paying our bills, trying to make Christmas nice.”

Today, as an administrative assistant for the Elie Wiesel Foundation, Cicily is on her own, no longer living with her parents. But she is just 15 minutes away, and works only six blocks from her mother, and it is obvious the family is still central in her life.

She was a college junior when the project was proposed and her parents asked if she was comfortable with the filming. She recalls there was nothing courageous about her decision. “It was one hour,” she thought. “What the heck. Who could know that it would turn into something like this?”

Now, as the release draws closer (Fox is at work finding the last of the money that will complete the project), Cicily admits to some trepidation. “None of us knows what effect it will have,” she explains, “or how it will be received. Being in the spotlight is a scary thing. To some people, interracial marriages aren't acceptable. We could be a target.”

Even as she shares her personal concerns, however, Cicily reveals the influence of her parents in describing her hopes for the film. “It's just that we are regular people,” she says, “like anyone else. That's why we started it, and why we thought nobody would watch it. But maybe they will. We're just normal.”

Says Fox: “An American Love Story is the most comprehensive exploration of an American family that exists. Through spending a year with Karen and Bill, we will see where the color lines dissolve and a celebration of difference emerges. The series becomes a container for exploring American society at the end of the millennium.”