#465) Suzanne Suzanne (1982)

#465) Suzanne Suzanne (1982)

Directed by Camille Billops & James V. Hatch

Class of 2016

Another rare NFR entry with no clips I can readily embed. Here’s an interview with Camille Billops & James V. Hatch.

The Plot: Artist Camille Billops turns the camera on her own family in her filmmaking debut “Suzanne Suzanne”. The Suzanne of the title is Billops’ niece Suzanne Browning, battling a heroin addiction following the death of her father, Brownie. Also interviewed are Suzanne’s mother Billie (Camille’s sister), and grandmother Alma (Camille and Billie’s mother). It is soon revealed that both Suzanne and Billie were victims of Brownie’s alcoholism and physical abuse. Billops and her husband James Hatch chronicle their family as they grapple with their problems head-on for the first time.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film a “cinematic drug intervention” that “captures the essence of a black middle-class family in crisis”. The film’s climactic moment is called “an intensely moving moment of truth”.

But Does It Really?: This one is definitely on the “culturally significant” side of the list. “Suzanne Suzanne” represents Camille Billops and James V. Hatch, two people who devoted their lives to preserving African-American culture and art. While their scholarly efforts were about preserving the past, their films were about preserving the present, showing Camille and her family confronting some very personal issues. Having now done my homework, I’m curious as to why “Suzanne Suzanne” made the cut over the team’s later, even more personal film “Finding Crista”. Regardless, “Suzanne Suzanne” perfectly encapsulates Billops and Hatch’s filmography, as well as their achievements in capturing the nuance of African-American life.

Everybody Gets One: By the late ’60s, Camille Billops was primarily known as a sculptor, with exhibitions of her ceramics in both New York and Germany.  In 1968, Billops met her future husband, UCLA theater Professor James Hatch, and the two started collaborating on collecting thousands of interviews and other documentation about African-American art and culture. Through encouragement from Hatch, Billops’ art pivoted from ceramics to plays, and eventually filmmaking. “Suzanne Suzanne” was their first film together.

Title Track: We have a title song! “Suzanne Suzanne” the song was composed by Billops’ daughter Christa Victoria (see “Legacy”), and sung by Victoria and Billops. Once again, I am surprised when a serious documentary or short has its own title song.

Seriously, Oscars?: No Oscar love for “Suzanne Suzanne”, or Billops & Hatch. 1982’s Documentary Short Subject Oscar winner was “If You Love This Planet“, a controversial anti-nuclear weapons film.

Other notes 

  • The film’s cinematographer is Dion Hatch, James’ son from a previous marriage.
  • Right out the gate, this film grapples with its complex subject matter. Both Suzanne and Billie are relieved that Brownie is no longer controlling their lives, but at the same time Suzanne admits that he was a role model for her, highlighting the complex relationship that some people have with their parents.
  • I cannot imagine how tough it must have been for this family to open up about any of these topics. Then again, I doubt any of them considered the possibility that this documentation would become part of a national film archive.
  • We get a brief glimpse at Camille’s reflection in the bathroom mirror while she is interviewing her nephew Michael (Suzanne’s brother). She is sporting her trademark braids and necklaces. And while we’re on the subject, that is one hell of a mustache Michael is sprouting. It’s a cross between a handlebar and extended muttonchops.
  • The rehab center Suzanne goes to (Tuum Est, Inc.) is in Venice Beach, CA. The building is still a rehab center, but is now called Phoenix House.
  • The film’s highlight is Suzanne and Billie working out their respective trauma one-on-one during Suzanne’s rehabilitation. They ask each other questions while looking away from each other, and seeing both of their faces as each one of them has a breakthrough is a compelling viewing experience.

Legacy 

  • Camille Billops and James Hatch made five more short films over the next 20 years, many of them centering around Billops and her family. Most notable of these is 1991’s “Finding Christa”, documenting Billops’ reunion with her daughter, whom she gave up for adoption in the early ’60s.
  • I had difficulty tracking down any present day information about Suzanne Browning. Anyone know what happened to her?
  • Billops died in June 2019 at the age of 85, with Hatch following in March 2020 at age 91. Their extensive collection of African-American interviews, plays, and manuscripts are available in the Camille Billops and James V. Hatch Archives at Emory University.

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