By: Jennifer Jones, Visiting Assistant Professor of Film Studies
Provocative and pioneering, Camille Billops was a multimedia visual artist, filmmaker and archivist. Born in 1933 to a middle-class Black Los Angeles family with Southern roots, Billops trained as an educator and visual artist, studying at the University of Southern California before earning a Bachelor of Arts from what is now California State University, Los Angeles, and a Master of Fine Arts from the City College of New York. Working in ceramics and sculpture among other media, Billops eventually moved into filmmaking with her husband James Hatch, a white theater professor focused on issues of Blackness. She became most widely known for their collaborative documentaries focused primarily on her family.
That’s how I met Billops in the summer of 1990. She and Hatch taught filmmaking at the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Humanities, a state-funded summer institute for gifted high schoolers. I knew I liked movies but wasn’t sure what that meant for my future. They were the first to show me through an extracurricular on video production. My group made a documentary interviewing people about Spam while recording their shoes. Perhaps embarrassed to be so absurd with our instructors, we interviewed them face to face. In Billops’ entry, she acted shocked at our query then closed her eyes and stuck out her tongue. The moment is startling and delightful, partly for how Billops’ striking appearance — braided and beaded hair, heavy Egyptian-influenced eyeliner, dangly silver jewelry, mixed patterned clothes and hairy lip — mingled with the absurdity of her own performance.
Billops also shared some of her work in progress, a documentary about reuniting with the daughter she had given up for adoption almost 30 years prior. I was struck by her candor, that an adult trusted us high schoolers to engage thoughtfully with this thorny, intimate experience. That work became Finding Christa, winner of the 1992 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for documentary, making Billops the first (and for a long time, only) Black woman to earn that honor.
One of Billops’ greatest legacies is the archive she and Hatch amassed on Black artistic production. Understanding the struggles of Black artists for recognition and the importance of preserving both their work and words, the couple created the Billops-Hatch Collection, gathering materials and recording interviews and conversations with as many Black artists as they could over several decades. Initially housed in their SoHo loft, the couple donated most of the archive to Emory University. The university hosted a major exhibition of the archive from 2016 to 2017, with Billops and Hatch able to participate in the event despite encroaching dementia for them both, each ultimately succumbing to their illness in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
At 16, I didn’t fully grasp the significance of Billops, her work, and her legacy. I started to understand as an undergraduate in Cinema and Women’s Studies with her name popping up in my texts; this expanded with my graduate studies. Now, as a feminist media scholar researching race, gender and sexuality and teaching video production who has worked in media archives, this formative encounter with Billops feels especially fortuitous. I’m continually buoyed by the memory of her brave, bold spirit, and feel honored to be, even in a small way, part of her legacy.
Does the shaping of lives and society by race, gender, sexuality, class and other factors fascinate you? If so, you’ll definitely want to check out TU’s welcoming and vibrant Women’s and Gender Studies program today.