The slogan "the personal is political" is bandied about by every cause from aluminum can recycling to uniforms in public schools, but very rarely does the personal hit so close to home and the political resonate as widely as in Family Name. Macky Alston's film is a personal documentary about coming to terms with his family's slave-owning past.
Macky, as a boy, never wondered why all the other Alstons in his North Carolina elementary school were black, but as an adult he embarked on a search for the truth and legacy of his past. He traveled from New York to Alabama, visiting old family estates and crashing Alston family reunions (both black and white) on his quest for answers about a shared history that is rarely spoken of.
The film unfolds like a detective story, with Alston uncovering clues and following leads generations old. With the help of several black Alstons committed to uncovering the truth concerning their common last name, Macky discovers a complex network of relationships left behind from slavery. Alston's willingness to confront whatever ugly truth might manifest itself about his forebears makes for an unflinching, intimate look at American history.
Family Name won the Freedom of Expression award this year at Sundance, where it premiered in the documentary competition. This fall, Macky Alston will receive the IFP's Open Palm Award for best debut feature film by a New York filmmaker. The film opens at New York's Film Forum September 3 and will screen in Los Angeles in October.
Filmmaker: What prompted you to investigate your family history in such a public way?
Alston: When I started making this film, which was in September, 1993, I had been editing and had done a couple of short documentaries for hire. I was prepared, I think, emotionally and psychologically to begin my first feature film. And, yet, I knew how difficult it was going to be, I knew how long it was going to take and how difficult it would be to raise money for anything, particularly for someone who doesn't have a film like this under his or her belt. I wondered what a topic might be that was so important to me and my own growth that even if the film never got made I would never regret spending three to five years working on it.
I think that [making a film about] my Southern roots really came out of a couple of things: I moved North when I was eight, so I was raised with a schizophrenic identity -- I was influenced by my parents' desire to go away. Yet the rest of my family, who we visited all the time, were down South. I never felt 100 percent comfortable going back there because I was no longer a member of that society. I was learning I was gay and that I had a different perspective on issues, such as race, than my cousins, aunts and uncles seemed to. That troubled me and I felt like an outsider while I was ushered in as an insider. And then there was the specific memory of being a child in the school in Durham [N.C.] and being the only white Alston and having there be many other Alstons, all black. All of us, at least when together, were raised not to talk about it. I thought that was a rich, interesting, provocative, challenging terrifying, thing to explore.
Filmmaker: Your family must have had a strong reaction once you told them you were going to do this. Even though you are taking on this project to find out about your own personal history, you are also sort of outing them as well. Your father in particular -- he is presented in the film as the family member who rebelled the most from the family with his civil rights activity. What did he think when all of a sudden you go back to the place he wanted to take you and your sisters away from?
Alston: I think he was discomfited and knew he could not and should not keep me from doing this. He just had faith that I knew what I was doing or would learn from it what I needed to learn from it. He is a very personal, private person. As a minister, he has to present himself all the time to the community, yet he is a strong believer in not talking about yourself. So, here I was doing a personal documentary, and he had no idea what the hell I was up to. He said, "I think it is just a little sick to be cashing in on your own family stories." I think that what he was getting at was that he was not familiar with first person documentary, so he didn't quite understand why I would be interested in pursuing something about the legacy of slavery in such a personal way. I've heard Alan Berliner talk about this, that his father said, "Who in the world would be interested in me? The problem with you, Alan, is what you find interesting might not be what everybody else finds interesting."
Filmmaker: You mention the issue of policing one's own speech so as not to offend or appear hurtful. How did this "politeness," as you call it, affect your search and did you find a difference between North and South in terms of willingness to speak out?
Alston: [In the South] there is this value of being polite, which has its great sides, but also its negative sides. Discord is often discouraged and avoided. What I learned in trying to stir that up, in being blunt and asking, "Are you angry?" was that a), of course, wherever you go, you can't just knock on someone's door and expect them to be real with you if they don't know who you are and what your motives are. But, b), if people have a sense of who you are and do trust you, then they will engage in a conversation that might be upsetting to you and to them, trusting that they will be understood and that kind of discord will be acceptable.
The interesting thing is the result of the great migrations of the twentieth century. There are so many African-American communities throughout the country who claim Southernness, Southern identity and Southern roots. There are the same groups of whites and blacks who share the same last names because, particularly in this century, people moved. This history is as relevant in California, Chicago, Boston, Detroit, as it is in Birmingham. Everybody has to take responsibility for it, whether or not you are a direct descendent of slave owners or slaves. We are still heirs to that system where white people inherit privilege and black people inherit oppression.
Filmmaker: What about something more slippery than scapegoating? What about the attitude that you are dredging up an unpleasant past that is better left alone?
Alston: It is so much safer. It is so much more hopeful to live in the light of this history, to live in close proximity to this history, to live with everybody knowing it, dealing with it and every generation responding to it, instead of burying it. When we screened in Berlin, it was fascinating to see the Germans respond very personally to the talk about evil and history and taking responsibility for that.
Filmmaker: Someone obviously not comfortable with this notion of taking responsibility for history sent a letter to the Charlotte, N.C., newspaper about your project. He said some vitriolic things, calling you a "warped, guilt-ridden shell of a man who must be a great disappointment to your father." Did it cause you doubts about your endeavor? What was your reaction?
Alston: Pain. I mean that's the problem with doing this thing. The article itself was lovely. It was a column that described my project and my motives and my desire to take responsibility for what went on, what my ancestors had done, not just because they were bad and I am them, but because I inherit the privilege that they had in some form or another. The letter to the editor was the first outspoken criticism, the first time someone hated me. It requires splitting the professional identity from the personal one, but that is really hard in first-person documentary. I was excited about this project because it was provocative. When I told a friend what I was planning to do, he started shaking his head and said, "Look, you are going to get skewered. Are you ready?" Part of me was saying, "No, I'm not. No, I'm not." And the other said, " I can take it, and that's what makes it so exciting." The truth of the matter is that any maker or artist is putting something out hoping that other people are going to respond in a positive way. This was the first time when someone was going to attack me, and I knew it was out there, but this was the first time it really, really stung. I mean, I felt like I was in seventh or eighth grade and somebody had called me a faggot.
Filmmaker: You cite your own coming out to your family as an impetus for this project. This brings up the idea of compassion, empathy. It's the unspoken link between your voiceover and your documentary footage. What can be learned from comparing civil right movements and the variety of relationships between those in power and out of power?
Alston: The issue of empathy is a tricky one. I obviously could never literally empathize with somebody other than I am, whether it be a woman or a black person or straight person or a poor person or a person from the Third World. However, there are degrees to that. I think documentaries and relationships can instill compassion to whatever extent that is possible. That compassion is crucial for people caring enough about each other to work together for the betterment of those who are not in power, and ultimately the betterment of everyone.
Filmmaker: You mention a couple of times in the film that your crew was a sight. What effect did they have on your relationship with the locals?
Alston: Going down there and being this conspicuous crowd of people -- [the locals] didn't know what to make of us. They looked at us with as much fascination as they did with suspicion.
Filmmaker: Did you make any effort to blend in?
Alston: Of course, we did. For example, at the white reunion it just so happened that Brook, the still photographer had to go up North for something else. She's black. And the producer, who is also black -- the two black crew members of the five person crew, could not make it to that event. I realized that this is going to be a different kind of shoot. I might be able to pull some stuff that I might not be able to pull elsewhere. People might be more comfortable saying things than they would [in the presence of] a biracial or multiracial crew. It is "Documentary 101" that what color you are, what sex, what region you're from, what accent, what language, what age -- all of this has such an impact on the interview that you get, on the footage you get. I try hard to reveal that. You know, at the black reunion I say in the film, "I feel really conspicuous as a white person followed around by a film crew saying, 'Hi, I'm an Alston, too.'" I show the film crew there as being mixed, black and white -- people were wearing jewelry, had shaved their heads or were wearing weird t-shirts. Whenever we went, sometimes it was our clothing choices and our fashion statements that were as conspicuous as being black and white. That needed to be represented because it definitely had an effect on the footage we got.
Filmmaker: What did you find most effective in getting people to open up to you?
Alston: What was the most effective interview method? "Relationship." You can interpret that as a very exploitative documentary approach where I got to know people, got great interviews and then split. That's not the case. Certainly, I'm not intimate with everybody in the film, but there are a handful of people who I know and am very connected to. The question I started out with in my own heart was, "Is it possible to have relationships given this knowledge?" Can I have a relationship with Fred Alston or Spinky Alston or Aida Winters given that my people enslaved, sometimes raped, sometimes murdered their people? Of course, this is a microcosmic experience for the nation. Is there a possibility for compassion given the facts? The answer is yes. And that's incredibly beautiful and empowering and makes me feel that [this process] has got to be the national strategy as well as the personal strategy. I think it is in a lot of the jargon that Clinton already uses but how do you do that on the community level, on the state level? What responsibility, once you have relationship, do you then take to redistribute power, wealth, etc? I was talking to someone who said, "The truth of the matter is you never really had a relationship with them because when you bring a camera into a situation, it is never a true relationship." With my film, it was the opposite. The fact was that relationships were really possible.
Filmmaker: Through the vehicle of film?
Alston: Yes, it was through the vehicle of film that I made these relationships. I was probably looking for subjects that would be interested in my project. I saw in Fred and ultimately in Spinky, and some other characters along the way, people who were on similar quests themselves. Personal journey quests. And those were going to be the people who were going to engage me in conversation and then perhaps invite me into their own searches. [Ross McElwee's] Time Indefinite was the film that woke me up to the possibilities of first person documentaries. It is all about the way that the camera plays into the relationship that is actually taking place. Whether you claim it or not, that is a relationship.
Filmmaker: You end the film with a planned integrated event, the black and white Alston family reunion. What did you learn from it? This event happened on a small scale; can it be replicated?
Alston: I think it needs to happen on every scale. One needs to understand the power one wields in one's own life and in other people's lives. I have no illusions about that event. It simply was what it was: people coming together and checking each other out. Talking about slavery some and not talking about slavery some. It was unprecedented for those people and did have an effect. I think that there is a quote from Margaret Meade: "Does an individual have any power to effect change in the world? Yes, in fact, that is the only way change is permanently affected." I think that is right.
Michele Forman is working in Alabama on her first feature film and recently served as associate producer of Spike Lee's doc Four Little Girls.