If you think you absolutely know who you are and from whence you came, you need to see "Family Name," a film about family, ethnicity and identity airing at 10 tonight on public television.
Filmmaker Macky Alston set out on a journey in the early 1990s to explore the Alston family name. Three and half years later and immeasurably wiser, he came to understand how complicated, fluid and fragile identity really is for most Americans. We know who are parents told us we are, but is that the truth?
In Alston's case, he had suspicions from his earliest years. The son of a liberal Presbyterian minister in North Carolina, Alston was enrolled in a predominantly African-American elementary school as part of an effort to integrate the schools in Durham. One of the first things to strike Alston, who is white, was that a number of his black classmates were also named Alston.
"But, even with this civil rights activist mother and father, I didn't know why we had the same last name," he said in an interview last week. "This just wasn't talked about."
What he came to find out later is that his ancestors owned slaves and several plantations in western North Carolina. He had a hunch that the answers to his questions about the Alston name would be found in the history of those plantations.
And, so, his film begins.
One of the first things he found was two Alston family reunions, one black and one white, held during the same week just a few miles apart in North Carolina.
"Nobody at either one had any idea the other was taking place," Alston says.
Along the way, he also found many black and white Alstons who simply did not want to talk about the past. You can see Alston's grandmother running away from him when he tries to pin her down about the family's slaveholding past.
But Alston also found a remarkable collection of ancestors on both sides of the family: In New York, a celebrated painter of the Harlem Renaissance, Spinky Alston, who died in 1977. In Chatham County, N.C., a great-great-great-great-great-great uncle, Joseph John Alston, who owned so many slaves and so much land he was known to most simply as Chatham Jack.
Most important, Alston managed to forge connections with some of the African-American Alstons, especially Fred Alston Jr., a classical musician from Philadelphia. Fred invites Macky Alston to join him and his teen-age son, Jeff, on a trip to the South to revisit Fred's boyhood homes.
There's a lovely payoff in the film that involves Fred's music, but to be any more specific is to give away too much. Macky Alston's father, the minister, is also a musician -- he leads a country-western band -- and music is a big part of the film. It is used to add an extra layer of emotion and to suggest truths of the heart, blood and soul for which words aren't enough.
To fully appreciate how well music is used by Alston in "Family Name," listen to the version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" that closes the film. It starts as an Anglo-Saxon country tune sung by Macky Alston's father. But, verse by verse, it grows more and more gospel in the hands of the Alston Family Choir until it is impossible to know when it stopped being white and started being black, and what you should call the final product.
That is, of course, a perfect metaphor for the Alston family name and, indeed, for much of the American experience, as we try to come to terms with the multicultural times in which we now live.
"Family Name," the winner of the 1997 Sundance Film Festival Freedom of Expression Award, is a profound meditation on multiculturalism, ancestors, history, race, community and, above all, identity.
"I was raised thinking in terms of otherness -- we are white, they are black, we are not connected," Alston says. "To break that wall down is, I think, a very important role."
And one he achieves -- at least, for the 90-minute running time of "Family Name."
When: 10 to 11:30 tonight
Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67)
Pub Date: 9/15/98