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In Appreciation of Camille Billops and Her Films

Camille Billops moved beyond predictable and well-tread ground to open up space for new narratives in her films—about Black families, Black women, and Black middle-class life—that pulled on her distinctive and unapologetic worldview.

Filmmaker Camille Billops is unclassifiable, and thank goodness for that. This is not to suggest an oeuvre that is inaccessible or even ambiguous. Rather, it is the directness of her execution, the almost “outlandish” shamelessness in her delivery, the irreplicable authenticity of her creative voice, and a lived experience that defies all essentialism, that makes Billops so untouchable, yet so utterly down-to-earth. As noted in Connie Winston’s essay “The Art of Remembering”: “To call Camille Billops’ work unique, in whatever medium she may be using, is an under-statement. On first viewing her work, you are hit with a sense of complete ‘unabashedness.’ [She] makes no excuses and takes no prisoners.”

Billops passed away in June 2019, at the age of 85, and left behind an indelible imprint on modern art often overlooked in mainstream discourse. Perhaps it is because of that indeterminate transcendence, which remains incompatible with the white capitalist framework responsible for much of our mass media. She made films; she was not a filmmaker. She sculpted; she was not a sculptor. She painted, she wrote, she acted, she printed; she was not a painter, a writer, an actor, nor a printmaker. Billops is all of these things and none of them; single label remains too parochial in understanding a humanistic prowess that eclipses genre, format, medium, worldview, or even a predetermined aestheticism.

Hers is an output that sees no tangible curtailments, unfurling before the eyes, in the moment, even when it is retrospective: gliding, dancing, trekking (sometimes aching) through its forum—be it clay, canvas, or celluloid. As noted by Barbara Lekatsas in “Encounters: The Film Odyssey of Camille Billops”: “Billops is an artist who chooses to express herself across a variety of art media and who seeks to break down boundaries between them.” Usually, too, the fourth wall is broken to intimately involve the viewer in present time, just as Billops intimately involves herself around, amid, and within her subjects.

Her workmanship remains so idiosyncratic, yet so effortless, because of the effortless idiosyncrasies she inhabited. For Billops, “artist” was not an honorific, defined by stasis, but something always moving. Her work is living and lived through—creator and creation are not just inseparable, they are synonymous. Defiance of genre parameters on-screen are a direct extension of a lived defiance that not only surpasses, but often bluntly challenges parameters of race, gender, age, and class. In her 1992 essay about Billops for BOMB Magazine, writer Ameena Meer comments:

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, [and] a lecturer in Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Like her art, Meer argues, Billops is a living, fluid coalescence: she is a Black female whose “perversely hairy upper lip” reads as male-performative, yet does not invalidate her Black womanhood. Furthermore, “feathers and beads click…in her braids…[above] layers of Afro-Asian necklaces over an Indian kurta” to manifest a diverse mosaic that occupies the same space as her middle-class upbringing in the West Coast suburbs. These are all shifting gobs of paint on an amorphous identity palette.

Her work as a filmmaker remains, perhaps, the most potent extension of said anti-essentialism. Billops’ career in the medium began at the height of the L.A. Rebellion, and during the development of Afrofuturism (with watershed films like John Coney’s 1974 Space Is the Place), two key concurrent movements of art-making. The former, as described by Allyson Nadia Field in the book L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema, saw Black UCLA students revolt—against their institution, and dominant Hollywood practices at large—to bring Black narratives to American screens with a humanizing verisimilitude in both content and form. The latter, as noted by Lanre Bakare in the “Afrofuturism takes flight: from Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe”, implements myriad art and technological forms into an autonomous, all-encompassing, and forward-looking philosophy, later described by author Ytasha Womack as “the intersection between black culture, technology, liberation and the imagination, with some mysticism thrown in, too…it’s a way of bridging the future and the past.”

These qualities considered, Billops’ work reads as somewhat comparable to her contemporaries. She, the storyteller, remains inseparable from the storytelling and the technique. Furthermore, she aims to present multitudinous perspectives about and from within the Black experience, bridging past and future by pulling on a variety of narrative structures and media formats in a protean and non-temporal creative space. But aside from these attributes, she exists in a league all her own.

Yet, how could Billops, a Black woman, possibly make films during key movements in Black cinema that fall outside of those works? Understanding history’s constructed nature sheds light on this confusion. Filmmaking, and history at large, is understood pedagogically (and in common discourse) as linear and unchanging, with little regard for the temporal and cultural fluidity that defines our day-to-day. Billops’ lived identity was one of complete temporal and cultural fluidity, each component authentic to her positionality but unconstrained by compartmentalization or capital. The endless facets of her experience operated as part of an ongoing dialogue.

It is no wonder, then, that her work embodies aesthetic and historical fluidity as an outsider of the L.A. Rebellion and early Afrofuturism, despite occurring at the same time as those key movements. Billops’ films, beginning in the late-1970s, disprove the idea that there is a single Black narrative, even as filmmakers like Haile Gerima and Julie Dash, and artists like Sun Ra, derailed such essentialism—and as Billops herself was emerging a brilliantly singular voice.

While the Rebellion can be linked to contemporaneous Third Cinema movements, and influences like the French New Wave, Billops’ work has no clear progenitor. One could even argue that the L.A. Rebellion (while neoteric in its own right) was a reactive movement: the antithesis to Old Hollywood’s representation of Black narratives. On the contrary, Billops reacts to nothing but her own reality, and the people of her life. As noted in “Camille Billops: Lost and Found” by Jenifer Warren, for Billops’ 1991 film Finding Christa (which won the Grand Jury Prize at that year’s Sundance Film Festival):

In the spring of 1961, a young black woman named Camille Billops took an action that made her a pariah in the eyes of her family and society: She gave up her 4-year-old daughter, Christa, for adoption…Ten years ago, mother and daughter were reunited, and now Billops has made a haunting film about their odyssey.

Thus, Billops allows real-time personal exploration to guide her films, without a clear agenda, and without the assurance that her work will become what she envisioned it to be. In making Finding Christa, she identifies a looming leitmotif of uncertainty: “We went through some very treacherous waters. I know this is particularly hard on Christa, this constant re-enactment. And I don’t know the solution to it.”

Thus, Billops directly challenges the mythology that she, or any artist, possesses all of the cards. But in crafting a cinematic style so completely first-voice yet so unprecedented in form (sometimes Billops interviews others, other times she interviews herself or has others interview her; sometimes she constructs certain scenarios for the lens, but shatters the illusion by interjecting her voice, while other times she inhabits a vérité approach), she manages to strike an undoubtedly universal chord. She is unafraid to be unparalleled, which allows the work, in its fearlessness, to be so wide-reaching.

With this medley of practices, she prevents her films from being essentialized as pure “documentaries” or “fictional meta-narratives” hampered by a predetermined blueprint. She automatically subverts Hollywood filmmaking practices, and even techniques established by the L.A. Rebellion and early Afrofuturistic works. As noted by Lorraine O’Grady in Artforum in 1992: “[Billops’ filmography] seems to define the revolutionary potential in what Richard Rorty calls ‘abnormal discourse’, the new thing that can happen when one is either unaware of or sets aside the rules.” Like their unclassifiable creator, Billops’ films remain unclassifiable creations, which makes them all the more profound.

The two works that most effectively highlight this “formlessness in form” are Suzanne, Suzanne (1982) and The KKK Boutique Ain’t Just Rednecks (1994). Suzanne, Suzanne was one of the first cinematic portraitures of Black middle class life, specifically that of Billops’ niece, Suzanne Browning. In a film like Haile Gerima‘s Bush Mama, discrimination is wielded against an impoverished Black family, with protagonist Dorothy battered by external forces (police officers, the welfare system, etc.) that aim to dehumanize her at every turn.

In Suzanne, Suzanne, Billops examines the breakdown of a middle-class Black family and explores subjugation from within, where abuse operates internally rather than at merely a societal level. Barbara Lekatsas confirms: “[Suzanne, Suzanne] focus[es] on women and their plight within the family as they struggle for independence and mastery of their lives.” The narrative was then-uncharted, and Billops’ style reflected this reality: one-on-one interviews play out amid off-camera interjections from the director herself, mixed with a melange of still photos, vérité B-roll, and the film’s climax: a haunting image of Suzanne and her mother, facing opposite directions beneath chiaroscuro lighting, unpacking the abuse they were subjected to.

While Suzanne, Suzanne is widely considered one-of-a-kind (see its entry into the National Film Registry in 2016), KKK Boutique earned a less favorable reception. A 1995 New York Times review following the film’s premiere noted: “The movie’s biggest failing is its toothless satire…the spectacle of salesmen enthusiastically modeling hooded white robes and garments bearing swastikas is too obvious to have any bite.”

Perhaps Billops’ commentary feels on-the-nose upon first watch. Still, KKK Boutique must at least be commended for its risk-taking, and should be similarly heralded for its embodiment of Billops’ best qualities as an artist: her directness, and her shamelessness. Her exploration of racism and biases throughout remains far from subtextual, boasting a surreal “docu-fantasy” format that throws prejudice so vehemently in the audience’s face, it almost feels like a joke. Perhaps this new, often bewildering take on racism is exactly the perspective she was aiming to share. Billops’ films are not always easily-digestible on initial viewing, stylistic outliers without a doubt, and it is precisely the “outsider” quality that makes her work so essential.

As noted in the Black American Literature Forum, “The criticism and theory of black film have developed in relation to changes in the genre…they move beyond predictable discussions of positive and negative images to consider topics [like]…class, race, and sexuality.” Camille Billops moved beyond predictable and well-tread ground to open up space for new narratives—about Black families, Black women, and Black middle-class life—that pulled on her distinctive and unapologetic worldview. In turn, her films fall outside movements and moments, with smorgasbords of storytelling and style all their own.

It is for this reason that Camille Billops was, is, and always will be a singular voice.

Sources Cited

Bakare, Lanre. “Afrofuturism takes flight: from Sun Ra to Janelle Monáe“.The Guardian. 24 Jul 2014.

Field, Allyson Nadia, et al. L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema. University of California Press. 2015.

Holden, Stephen. “Film Review; With No Stops On a Trip Through a Land of Racism“. New York Times. 3 Mar 1995.

Lekatsas, Barbara. “Encounters: The Film Odyssey of Camille Billops“. Black American Literature Forum. 1991.

Meer, Ameena. “Camille Billops by Ameena Meer“. BOMB Magazine. 1 Jul 1992.

Smith, Valerie, Camille Billops, and Ada Griffin.”Introduction [Black Film]“. Black American Literature Forum. 1991.

Uncredited. “Camille Billops (1933-2019)“. Artforum. 6 Jun 2019.

Warren, Jenifer. “Camille Billops: Lost and Found“. Los Angeles Times. 28 Jun 1992.

Winston, Connie. “The Art of Remembering: Camille Billops and James Hatch“. Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art. Duke University Press. 1 May 2012.