Tag: black lives matter

Family Name


Family Name (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Macky Alston, who is white, was sent by his father, a reverend and a civil rights activist, to an elementary school that was predominantly black. During his time there, Alston noticed a curious detail: many of his black schoolmates shared his last name. Alston, now an adult, goes on a mission to answer why this is—and it is directly related to his ancestors having owned slaves in North Carolina. “Family Name” is a fascinating and revealing documentary. Initially, it is about answering one person’s questions regarding his lineage, but eventually it evolves into an investigation of secrets, memories, and longings that have been brushed under the rug.

Its best moments involve the writer-director asking challenging questions to those who agreed to be interviewed. Black people of various backgrounds and age groups are asked probing questions whether they still feel angry about slavery; how they feel when they walk around plantations where black people were abused, raped, given as gifts; how their lives have been shaped or impacted by having known someone—a great-grandfather, a great-grandmother—who was a slave. Words do not reveal all. For example, Alston’s grandmother provides answers we can hear, but she also gives out answers we can only see. Look closely at the body language when some of the more pointed or surprising questions are brought up.

And then Alston turns his camera on his father. The reverend recalls a specific experience when he was in the Navy that completely changed his thinking, attitude, and treatment toward African-Americans. He used to be racist. But since then he dedicated his life to lift up his community—and making sure that black people get equal rights as whites. Laidback and gentle, it was a struggle for me to picture him before he decided to turn things around. But then he goes on to explain his family background, how he was raised, and what was considered to be acceptable thoughts and behavior when he was growing up in a bubble of an all-white community.

It is interesting that the filmmaker decided to include his thoughts about the project as a whole the deeper he gets into his investigation. He admits that there are times when even he doesn’t know where the film is ultimately heading, that his goal is constantly changing—that maybe it is going this way because he fails to have a complete grasp of the subjects and people he’s exploring. Perhaps his limitation is a result of the divide between cultures and time. He acknowledges his white privilege (without using the exact phrase) and the possibility of that serving as a filter. I found the inclusion of his thoughts to be appropriate because the documentary is first and foremost a personal story.

In the opening lines, Alston reveals to us that he has always felt like the black sheep of the family. He is gay and so he understands that certain things are better off not talked about, swept under the rug like one’s ancestors being one of the largest, if not the largest, slave owners in North Carolina. In his quest, we learn about Alston’s motivations as a white man, as a gay man, and, most importantly, as a journalist whose job is to get the facts and report them. This documentary goes through obituaries, gravestones, census data, family photos, books, and random folders that haven’t been opened for years. It is a small picture, one that takes its time, but its scope is impressive.

“Family Name” is one of those movies that I’m glad exists. It may not be visually polished and the sound can use a bit of sharpening at times, but I was riveted by it nonetheless. I admired that its goal does not involve changing anyone’s minds. It simply stands by the fact that the truth exists, should one bother to look (and listen), and it is up to us to do what we please with it: embrace it, fight it, sweep it under the rug and hope that we forget. In life, that’s just how it is.

Queen & Slim


Queen & Slim (2019)
★★★ / ★★★★

Taking inspiration from real-life events of police shooting unarmed African-Americans across the country, Melina Matsoukas’ debut picture “Queen & Slim” simmers with anger, but that is not what makes the work interesting. Instead of unleashing its fury, it allows the audience to witness and digest the injustices of racial profiling and murder. It is a powerful movie, certainly a sad one, that does not need to shout in order to highlight the importance of what it has to impart.

Unnamed man (henceforth “Slim” played by Daniel Kaluuya) and woman (Jodie Turner-Smith as “Queen”) go on a blind date after meeting on Tinder. On their way home, they are stopped by a police officer who claims that Slim has failed to execute a turn signal and exhibited some erratic driving. While this is true, it is clear that the cop wishes to bust the black man for something, anything. Without a warrant, the racist cop rummages through the trunk. The situation quickly escalates which leads to Queen being shot in the leg. Out of self-defense, Slim grabs the gun from the officer and shoots him dead. The couple decide to flee Cleveland, Ohio.

The six-night manhunt for Queen & Slim is executed with specific vision. It is not interested in glorifying violence by showing elaborate chases, gunfights, and the like. It is, however, curious about getting to know the couple as complex people who come from vastly different backgrounds. For instance, extended dialogue is presented to us like flirtatious poetry as Queen, initially dismissive of Slim, learns to respect the young man she assumed to be just another brother who wished to get in her pants; Slim, meanwhile, begins to recognize a possible future with Queen. The movie is successful both as a crime drama and romance. The screenplay by Lena Waithe juggles both at the same time, never dropping one for the other at any moment.

The central couple is multidimensional, and so are the supporting characters—however brief we spend time with them. A few standouts include Queen’s uncle (Bokeem Woodbine) who lives with prostitutes with surprising heart and insight about loneliness, a gas station attendant who does not blink once when a gun is pointed at his face, a teenager named Junior (Jahi Di’Allo Winston) who idolizes the outlaws, and the caucasian couple (Chloë Sevigny, Flea) who are aware of the bounty for Slim & Queen but decides to help them anyway. Each interaction is different because every single person encountered has a specific personality and perspective regarding what occurred in Ohio. Everybody has an understanding and appreciation of what has been going on between cops and black people across the country.

Comparisons to Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie & Clyde” makes sense to an extent, but “Queen & Slim” is more modern and it possesses an identity of its own. There is something alluring in how Kaluuya and Turner-Smith are able to harness their chemistry, beginning from a place of awkwardness and distrust then eventually ending somewhere among loyalty, respect, and devotion. Their physical journey can be criticized for having one too many lucky breaks, but I believed their emotional journey completely. While I would have preferred a less blatant ending (which I do not think fits the overall tone of the film), I could find some justification why it was necessary.