Judge Daniel MacDonald is no relation to the old farmer. E-I-E-I-O!
Is something a secret if everybody knows it, but nobody talks about it?
In Family Name, his first film, award-winning documentarian Macky Alston (Questioning Faith) sets out on an investigative journey, seeking to discover the roots of his last name by traveling between his New York home, North Carolina, and Alabama. He quickly learns the answer to his first question—why all of the other Alstons at his elementary school were black, while he is white—by discovering the Alston history of slave ownership in the southern United States. He visits a number of Alston plantations, and speaks with innumerable men and women, mostly Alstons, probing family history, asking uncomfortable questions, and looking to illuminate his own family tree.
Macky Alston does a good job of setting the terms of his inquiry up front, offering a brief rundown of his own growing up and taking us to two Alston family reunions in North Carolina occurring within a week and ten miles of each other, one white and one black. Speaking with folks at both of these events gives us a good idea of the long history of the Alston name, and the pride inherent in these family histories: at one point, a gentleman unrolls a sizable family tree that traces the Alston clan back to Adam and Eve.
But Alston quickly starts to explore the uncomfortable topic of slave ownership and is met with reactions both remarkably open and tightly guarded. He comes across, especially in the picture's first third, as having an agenda into which he may be trying to fit interview subjects, and some of his probing questions border on leading. However, once the story moves into less expected directions, the information he is uncovering replaces Alston as the star of the piece.
Family Name is a deeply, bravely personal film. Alston himself is completely open to the camera, offering confessionals directly into the camera while driving from place to place. Up front, he tells us that he is gay and that the experience of coming out to his parents combined with learning the knowledge of his family's past slave ownership prompted him to explore this subject. After living with the secret of his sexual orientation, Alston sought to liberate other secrets from his family's history. One of the most engaging scenes in the film finds Macky Alston in his parents' living room with his father Wallace and two sisters and sharing what he has learned with his siblings. His dad describes his reasons for not wanting to talk about this dark element of their shared past and offers a compelling argument.
Indeed, Wallace Alston comes across as a rather heroic and preternaturally self-aware figure. Wallace has long fought for civil rights and other social justice causes, yet he tells a story of when he was a young naval officer and made a derogatory remark about a black soldier's intelligence. Wallace's companion corrected him, impressing upon him the inherent dignity of all human beings, and from that moment on the senior Alston had a great interest in human rights. Macky says that his father had "trouble with the homosexual issue," yet when he came out his dad soon took up the cause of gay rights as well. He's a fascinating man and one of the highlights of the film.
Briskly paced, with heartfelt narration and respect for its subjects, Family Name quickly piqued my interest in the history of southern Alstons. While it begins as a sort of detective story, it evolves into a statement about transcending race. The lesson would seem to be that, while history can be an important teacher, the past is past, and people would usually prefer to move ahead in unity if given the chance.
From a technical perspective, Family Name is less than stellar, with plenty of compression artifacts, dirt, and scratches on the image, and low bitrate two-channel sound. Footage from a variety of media is edited together with middling results, but the strength of the storytelling overcomes the picture's limitations.
Additional features include a 29-minute series of excerpts from the movie (not deleted scenes, just an abbreviated version), and a 27-minute interview with Macky Alston conducted specifically for the DVD release.
This is a strong documentary with a subject specific enough to avoid sprawling, yet chock full of fascinating revelations. It's an excellent debut film and well worth checking out.
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• "Excerpts from Family Name"
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