Camille Billops by Ameena Meer

BOMB 40 Summer 1992
040 Summer 1992
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Camille Billops. © 1991 Ruth Williamson.

The first time I saw Camille Billops, she stalked past me, feathers and beads clicking in her braids, black-rimmed eyes dancing below the brim of a man’s hat. She wore layers of Afro-Asian necklaces over an Indian kurta, a naughty grin under a perversely hairy upper lip (no depilatories here), ethnic brown sandals. “Is she Indian?” I whispered to a friend.

He laughed, “No, that’s Camille.” Camille Billops is a performer. At a cocktail party or walking down Broadway, she is an amalgamation of all the places she’s been—an African-American child growing up in a working-class family in California, a single mother and college student, the artist wife of a professor [her collaborator, James Hatch] in Egypt, a theater director in India, a teacher in Taiwan, a lecturer in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Thailand—and, with her explosive laughter, Camille is impossible to ignore. Her documentary, Finding Christa, about her decision to give up her daughter for adoption and the young woman’s search for her mother, is equally compelling and magical. Finding Christa won the Grand Prize for documentaries at the Sundance film festival this year.

Along with making films that are “a celebration of the family:” Suzanne Suzanne (1982) and Older Women and Love (1987); Camille Billops and James Hatch curate the Hatch-Billops collection, an extensive archive of 20 th Century Black Culture. Camille Billops is also a painter and sculptor and James Hatch is a professor of English at City College of New York. Finding Christa will be aired on PBS’ 10:00 PM on June 29.

Ameena Meer How did you go from making art to making films?

Camille Billops In 1968, my husband [James Hatch] and I spent five months in India doing excerpts from a play called America Hurrah, a socially-conscious play of the times about the status of America. So Mr. and Mrs. Interracial Couple presented themselves in Calcutta, Bombay, and Bangalore. But Calcutta was the hippest: we used a partially-finished theater, and scenes were done in environments, in mazes, in little tunnelings. For all of us, it was a culture clash. I wanted to have actors walking through the legs of a Superblond. Well, in India, they don’t let you walk through the legs of any women. So we made Superblond a man. The play had sayings like, “And as usual, he said nothing. And as usual, I went away.” About being involved in meaningless situations that you never solve. When the U.S.I.S. people finally saw it, they freaked out that the American government had sponsored an anti-Johnson play with all those Bengali Communists. Oh, it was quite splendid and wonderful. Then, we went on a lecture tour through Thailand and Malaysia. We met a Chinese-Malaysian playwright, Lee Jou For, who “leaked” to the press that Jim was going to do his play on Broadway. Well, now, how was Jim going to get this Buddhist play on Broadway? But it made the Malaysian king and queen come to the performance; it made the United States government give him a travel grant. He really worked that one. So when we came back to New York, we did his play, Son of Zen. All the Buddhists we knew came to our loft on East 11th Street. We continued to do plays, one about the Panthers, one about the city; we did poetry readings, we had exhibitions. It was self-motivated activity and a lot of fun. And then we started the Hatch-Billops collection, a library on Black Americans in the Arts because we thought, “Nobody else is going to do it.” Film was just another art form, just different material. So, in 1978, we did a film about my niece who had been addicted to heroin.

AM Suzanne Suzanne.

CB I called it that because when she was telling me about her experiences, I kept saying, “Oh Suzanne! Suzanne!” Then we did Older Women and Love, a film about my aunt and her young lover. Finding Christa was our last film. Now we’re saying, “Well, why don’t we do this film about racism?” Because we always talk about racism and the inner dynamics of it. I came up with The KKK Boutique: Ain’t Just Rednecks.

AM Where did you study?

CB I went to art school at USC in 1954 after having gone to City College in Los Angeles. At USC, you had the most classical education possible for artists. Along with sculpture, drawing, ceramics, and weaving, I studied anatomy, neurology, physiology, orthopedics, kinesiology. In anatomy, we had six of us on one cadaver. We cut up bodies.

AM Like Leonardo.

CB It was a beautiful thing. Then I got pregnant, or as we say in Finding Christa, “knocked-up.” I had to change majors and go to another school. It threw me back three years, but I worked days, full-time at the bank and went to school at night and finished. But at one point, I decided I didn’t want to be anyone’s mother. I wanted to go back to the place that I considered the crossroads. And in this country, it’s possible to do that because the restrictions on women are slightly different and it’s a little more anonymous.

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Camille Billops and James Hatch in Finding Christa.

AM It would be impossible to lose your past in that way in a less transient society.

How did you choose such personal subjects? Your niece’s drug addiction, your aunt’s lover, the daughter you gave up for adoption: they’re so close to home that I’d find them impossible to approach as film.

CB Maybe it’s self-exhibitionism. A lot of people wouldn’t talk about those things. I learn from each audience. Most of the time, people say, “That was brave. We admire that. It was important to say that.” Often, we don’t say things we should. I tried to say those things. In view of a larger picture, that’s how the film should be considered. Not as a personal story, but as an example of the larger ideas about women. Women as nest-keepers, women as mothers, and how they are either honored or—women can be adventurers and explorers. Sometimes men want to be nest-keepers, but we don’t allow that. Finding Christa is a plea for women to think about their choices. You should never let anyone take those choices away from you. The control words for women are moral words. They will call you a whore if you want to stand out on the street, just to find out the news. You can’t hang out on that street. Men will circle and drive you away from the public space. So I was always curious about that. I am a feminist, but some of the white women, like the Kate Millets and that group who wanted to go to Iran to liberate the women behind the veil; I said, “Put your ass out on the streets, see how liberated you are. Check out that corner, you need a submachine gun.” But we don’t know the end of this yet, it’s been a very interesting exploration.

Sometimes, after seeing Finding Christa, women talk to me about children that they’re looking for, or that maybe they should have given up. But they don’t say it out in an open way, they tend to whisper it afterwards.

AM Watching Older Women and Love, sex and older women is such a taboo subject, I was transfixed and embarrassed at the same time.

CB Did you understand it? Because the jokes are Black. If you don’t get the jokes, it’s hard to get the film.

AM I did think it was funny.

CB There is some subtlety to it, like when Patty Bown talks about the young man who went to visit a woman in Harlem who had one tooth. It’s this sly talking, “I guess he settled in on that lady’s tooth.” Talking about oral sex, “I guess she toothed him to death, huh?” (laughter) I showed that film in Port Jefferson, to an audience of white women and they didn’t get it. So nothing happened.

AM Finding Christa, about giving your daughter up for adoption, took courage to make.

CB People see it as bravery, I think of it as a cleansing. A lot of men want to wrestle you to the ground, make you say you’re sorry: “Aren’t you happy you found her?” They’re saying, “Aren’t you going to make this up and repent? And be a real mother now that you have a chance?” An old friend of mine who never got married—he was saying, “You must do this for her, and you must do that.” And I said, “I don’t take that from childless men.” They want you to be a good girl. But many people are thinking people. And it does make people think.

AM You made your first film, Suzanne Suzanne for like …

CB $20,000 and Older Women was done for $34,000. Finding Christa was done for about $85,000.

AM That’s amazing.

CB We don’t pay anybody. We’re cheap. I have budgets for cameramen, but they don’t get all that money! I say, “Look, your income taxes don’t need this anyway. So why don’t you just take this two thousand dollars.”

AM How do you come up with the ideas?

CB Jim and I talk back and forth. We keep telling each other the story, until we come up with something. For the KKK: Boutique, we were going to have our friends come over and talk about their individual racism. But they’re all older and tight, closed and guarded. I was talking to kids at the Chicago Arts Institute, and maybe because certain sadnesses have not happened to them, they were much more open. I told them that we don’t have permission to talk about our racism because it’s such a shameful thing. You’re not supposed to have it. It’s too bad, we should treat it like TB. Suppose you were ashamed to have tuberculosis, like it used to be. I talked about my racism. I said, “Look at it this way. It’s a bad servant, it does not deliver what you want it to deliver. The person you hate does not go away, the situation does not go away by hating, and you are reactive and put your body in a very stressful situation, and if you do it over a period of time, you will come down with diseases. You blow all your energy.”

People come here with preconceived attitudes. They have those attitudes in their own country about color and class. I saw it all in Egypt: the light-skinned people walking in and the dark ones holding the door open. And in Taiwan, all the girls have gloves on and little white hats on, because they don’t want to get dark. One student was out in the surf, wading around out in the ocean, hiding under an umbrella. I said, “You’re not going to get dark, the sun’s down.”

In this country, we always talk about the black and white of things. Black people accusing white people, and in between, we all just do each other as dirty as we can. Black America has a hard time with other minorities, because they see them as between them and the prize, which they feel is their due because of slavery. So, we want to talk about and address all the dynamics of this, but we also want to deal with the madness of things like … why do poor whites become Neo-Nazis? They are one of the most ignored groups in America. The upper-classes always call poor white people “trash.” So how do they get your attention? By acting out, becoming Neo-Nazis, Klansmen, the Aryan nation, the White People’s Party, Skinheads. And then their counterparts, who get to go to Harvard, just keep you out of the club and out of the neighborhood. And out of the power at the cocktail parties. Are they any different?

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Suzanne Browning and her family in Suzanne Suzanne.

AM Where do you think all the new South and Southeast Asian immigrants will fit?

CB Things happen in this country because you’re dark. Not necessarily because your hair’s nappy, but because you’re dark. That’s the first thing they see. So I’m curious about the group in between, where they go, what they do with it.

It will be hard to say, “I’m just a person.” No, you don’t get to be “just a person” here, you have to have a camp. And if it’s going to be with white people, you have to really be white. Nothing funny here. See, with Black America, there’s a legal definition. 1/32 Black blood, that means a great, great-grandmother Black—you are Black. That is only in this country, because of slavery. Not in any other place in the world. In Black America, there are color castes, based in slavery, that are perpetuated by white America and dearly nurtured by Black America. From what I’ve seen in other cultures of color, very similar systems are at work. It’s racism within the group and that’s very powerful. So white people are not the only players on the stage. If you don’t admit to your own racism, how do you expect to keep telling white people about theirs?

AM Within the Black community, is intermarriage looked upon badly? Even my Indian friends who’ve spent all their lives in England and America see themselves marrying other Indians, preferably from the same part of India. And then the intense pressure from parents and relatives and friends is enough to make an interracial relationship fall apart.

CB I always tell Black women who are looking for husbands—professionals, doctors and still they fall apart because they can’t get a Black man—I say, “You’re powerful, you got an eagle as a passport, and you’ve got a plastic, why don’t you make an ad? You want something black? Get a South Indian, they’re so black, they’re blue.” You can get anything you want, make an ad, make an arranged marriage. I said, “Want a Philippino? They’re quite handsome, too. And the handsome Taiwanese people.” (laughter)

Everybody has a form of tribalism. My sister got the look from Black men because she had a Puerto Rican boyfriend. If she were on the street with two little nasty children needing a daddy, they wouldn’t pay attention. It’s male tribalism that sees women as property.

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Christa Victoria in Finding Christa.

AM Who are you the most racist about?

CB You can check it out in The KKK Boutique.

AM Jim, tell me your side of the story. How did you start making films about Camille’s family?

James Hatch By accident. All three ideas are Camille’s. It’s her family and her ideas and we just supported that idea. And her family is very cooperative, confessional, I’ve known them for what, 30 years, so they’re not strangers. So I do scenario, and directing.

AM Did you write your scripts in advance?

JH We wrote the scripts out and never used them because we always let people tell their own story, their own way. But we have a direction, questions and areas. We set up what we’re looking for. We may get it, we may not. So we waste a lot of film.

AM With Finding Christa, did you both have a clear idea of what you were making together? Your ideas must be different.

JH Camille and I see generally the same thing but not exactly. Did she show you that review? It’s a nice review, but it says, “Camille reveals nothing about herself, she remains an enigma.” And in a way, it’s true. She talks a lot and gives you her opinion, but you really don’t know that much about her.

Ameena Meer is a writer and Managing Editor of BOMB.

Todd Haynes by Alison MacLean
Todd Haynes 01

Originally published in

BOMB 40, Summer 1992

Featuring interviews with Reno, Derek Walcott, Neal Jimenez & Eric Stoltz, George Condo, Louis Kahn, Camille Billops, Darius James, Michael Jenkins, and Joe Mantello.

Read the issue
040 Summer 1992