Family Name

Director: Macky Alston
Screenwriters: Macky Alston, Kay Gayner

Institute History

  • 1997 Sundance Film Festival


Family Name is a real-life mystery of buried roots and well-kept secrets. As a child growing up in Durham, North Carolina, Mackey Alston never questioned why all the other Alstons in his elementary school were black. Now twenty-five years later, he takes us on a quest to unravel this mystery. Equipped with a 16-mm camera, Alston sets out to find the descendants of the slaves and slave owners from a plantation once owned by his family. From New York to Alabama, Alston travels to family reunions, graveyards, churches, and the original Alston plantations, asking questions and digging up clues. He meets Charlotte Blake Alston, an African-American storyteller; Spinky Alston, a painter who got his start in the Harlem Renaissance; and a dozen other enchanting folks who vary in age, race, and outlook but all share one thing: the family name.

It is a moving and even astonishing accomplishment when a personal documentary can act as a window on greater social issues. What part of himself has Alston inherited from his slave-owning ancestor? What bearing does this history have on his life today? Alston asks questions most people haven’t thought about or even wanted to. His appealing nature and honest, unjaded optimism win the subjects of the film over and us, too, for that matter. Race relations is a complicated subject. Most people feel more comfortable either leaving it in the distant past or discussing its relevance only to the last thirty years. For Alston, it is connecting the past to the present that has a wonderful healing effect.

Family Name is an intensely intimate film that is as rich and layered as a patchwork quilt, beautifully weaving personal encounters together with documents, photographs, and archival footage. The story unfolds like fiction, tracing each bloodline, drawing you into Alston’s near obsession. It is with delight that you share both discoveries and revelations with him, ultimately celebrating what is honorable and beautiful between people of different races and cultures.

— John Cooper

Screening Details

Sundance Film Festival Awards


As you use our Online Archives, please understand that the information presented from Festivals, Labs, and other activities is taken directly from official publications from each year. While this information is limited and doesn't necessarily represent the full list of participants (e.g. actors and crew), it is the list given to us by the main film/play/project contact at the time, based on the space restrictions of our publications. Each entry in the Online Archives is meant as a historical record of a particular film, play, or project at the time of its involvement with Sundance Institute. For this reason, we can only amend an entry if a name is misspelled, or if the entry does not correctly reflect the original publication. If you have questions or comments, please email [email protected]