Six Autobiographical Films That “Say It Like It Is”

The complete films of American artist Camille Billops and historian James Hatch will be shown for the first time as part of a new series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Opening on February 3, A String of Pearls: The Films of Camille Billops & James Hatch will feature the duo’s six autobiographical films over the course of a week. Third World Newsreel, a nonprofit alternative media organization, will present 4K restorations and 2K digitizations of works that explore Black American life, sexuality, and social issues — in Billops’s own words, films that “say it like it is, rather than how people want it to be.”

The retrospective honors the partnership between Billops, an artist, sculptor, and cultural worker who died in June 2019 at the age of 85, and Hatch, her husband, a scholar, filmmaker, and historian whose work often focused on Black theater. Hatch died in March 2020 of Alzheimer’s disease at age 91. In addition to their films, Hatch and Billops published their own journal, Artist and Influence, which featured interviews with Black artists.

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Shown in pairs, the retrospective centers the newly restored Suzanne, Suzanne (1982) and Finding Christa (1991), one of Billops and Hatch’s best-known films. Suzanne, Suzanne, selected for the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2016, unpacks the history of domestic abuse and substance within Billops’s family. The semi-autobiographical short film profiles her teenage niece, Suzanne Browning, who was physically abused by her father.

Finding Christa, which was shown in the 1992 Whitney Biennial, explores motherhood and adoption. In the documentary, Billops is reunited with her daughter Christa, whom she placed for adoption, and works through her own emotions around the decision as well as biases about adoption within her family. 

Still from Camille Billops and James Hatch, A String of Pearls (2002)

Billops and Hatch confront racial discrimination in the United States in The KKK Boutique Ain’t Just Rednecks (1994). In the film, a compilation of irreverent skits, interviews, and statements, the duo model themselves after Virgil and Dante from Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic, The Divine Comedy. The program at BAM will also include Take Your Bags (1998), which examines slavery, the descendants of enslaved Africans, and their loss of cultural memory. “Many generations later, the children of these Africans toured the Museum of Modern Art to see the sculptures and art of Picasso, Braque, and Matisse,” Billops said, speaking of the legacy of slavery.  “Lo! There were the beautiful icons of their ancestors …”

Older Woman and Love (1987) uses interviews and dramatizations to explore taboo relationships between older men and younger women. Inspired by Billops’s aunt, the film discusses the difficulties of relationships with a significant age gap. The showing of Older Woman and Love will be paired with A String of Pearls (2002). The final installment in the series Family Trilogy, which includes Suzanne, Suzanne, and Finding Christa, the film delves into the lives of the men in Billops’s family and the ways death, unemployment, and violence have shaped their lives. 

A complete description of the program as well as tickets can be accessed on BAM’s website.


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