Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel

FAMILY NAME (1997) ***

Directed by Macky Alston. Written by Alston & Kay Gayner. Photography, Eliot Rockett. Editing, Sandra Marie Christie and Christopher White. Music, Camara Kambon. Associate producer, Jennifer Chaiken. Executive producer, Nicholas Gottlieb. Released on PBS by P.O.V. 89 minutes. Rated TV-PG.

The filmmaker and central figure is documentarist Macky Alston who went from editor to producer-director. This is his first feature-length picture, and an extremely personal work.

Macky Alston is a member of the North Carolina Alston family, an extended, large and often distinguished "tribe." Both his grandfather and his father were preachers. The latter, who appears in the film, is most likable, a person that many churchgoers wish they had as their clergyman. He was also an activist in civil rights and apparently remains an advocate for causes dealing with liberty and justice.

The Alstons go back many years, if not centuries. The child Macky, growing up in North Carolina, always wondered by the number of his black classmates called Alston. His curiosity remained throughout the years, but the questions he put to his family went unanswered.

When Mackey was in his twenties, his father put in his hands a book about the history of the Alstons. It turned out that they had been among the largest slave-owners in North Carolina. So, at age 27 (he is 31 now) Mackey set on a voyage of discovery, visiting descendants of slaves and of slave-owners who lived mostly in North Carolina.

It was a natural reaction for Mackey, especially as he was gay. For a long time he concealed this from his folks, and even when he "came out, " on his parents' request kept his secret from some (or all?) his relatives.With his first-hand knowledge of concealing certain things, and as a member of a minority, Mackey was all the more dogged in his search.

He was to have have become a preacher and even attended Union Theological Seminary for two years, but decided not to continue in that path. Eventually, he moved to and worked in, New York City. (His parents were in Princeton, N.J.) He sometimes visited North Carolina. On his last trip he found out that there were to be two big family reunions --one white, the other black-- both held in the same week, a few miles apart and unaware of the other reunion.

With a film crew, he attended both reunions, talking to Alstons in both groups, especially in Pitsboro, N.C., where the phone book is like one long list of Alstons of all hues. He also searched in New York and other southern locations. In Pitsboro, the largest town on Chatham County, he learned that his great-great-great-great-great-great -uncle Joseph John Alston owned so much land and so many slaves that they called him Chatham Jack.

The film's interviewees are numerous. Some won't discuss this aspect of their history, others do so reluctantly, others yet respond willingly. The search expands, branches out, flashes back to Charles "Spinky" Alston, a notable Harlem Renaissance painter who had died in 1977, extends to past Alstons (some, prominent) from the past and the present. Mackey sleuths tirelessly, looks for documents, records, tombstone inscriptions, and draws both complicated family trees and clear conclusions

His travels, like those of Ulysses open up doors to factual knowledge, self-knowledge and mutual understanding, but unlike Homer's linear story, the trips often zig-zag and can fold back on themselves. The climax is a concert attended by both races. It becomes a wonderfully warm rapprochement. A final surprise of, simply, words on the screen, comes as a twist both touching and ironic. The truth does set you free.

Curiously, the filmic style of Family Name brings to my mind that splendid documentary by maverick filmmaker Ross McElwee, Sherman's March (1986). McElwee, the main character, and also a Southerner who lives in the North, filmed his own peregrinations in Dixie as he retraced the Union General's progress -- and in the process documented and analyzed (in often hilarious ways) the lifestyles, legends and mystiques of Southerners, especially women. Family Name is dead serious, yet not without gentle humor. Do not miss it.

Copyright © Edwin Jahiel

Movie Reviews by Edwin Jahiel