Parker: The quest to change a name

Still from Sharon Liese’s “Parker” (Sundance)

Film documents the generational legacy of slavery

Matt grew up in Kansas City with his biological parents, Adolphus Parker III and Sedoria Parker. Matt’s last name, however, was Harris. Though the difference puzzled the boy, Harris is the name he shared, in time, with his wife, Katrina, and their children, Cameron and Ashleigh.

Like many family stories, this one is a little complicated. But its challenges, along with the Kansas City setting and subjects, made it the perfect fit for filmmaker Sharon Liese, whose film “Parker,” about Matt’s quest to change his name and the discoveries made along the way, had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

The story begins with Matt’s birth, 42 years ago. Sedoria was separated but not yet divorced from her first husband, whose last name was Harris. Therefore, Harris was the last name listed on Matt’s birth certificate. Sedoria’s divorce went through when Matt was 3, and she and Adolphus married.

Sedoria and Adolphus raised their son all his life, and Adolphus is the only father Matt remembers. Matt’s last name, however, remained Harris, an awkward artifact that belied the family’s close ties. “Parker” follows the family as they finally make the decision to set things right.

Contemplating the change, Sedoria and Adolphus discuss its ironies, given that Black last names derive from the slaveowners to whom their ancestors belonged as property. But on a visit to the Black Archives of Mid-America, they learn that the legacy of slavery lives on not only in last names, but in first names as well.

Dr. Carmaletta Williams, executive director of the Black Archives, explains the naming tradition among enslaved communities of passing down distinctive first names from generation to generation. The reason was simple: Living under the constant threat and frequent reality of the forcible separation and selling of families, and especially the wrenching severing of children from parents, the hope was that distinctive first names might help family members to find or hear word of each other.

Liese enlisted Kansas City-associated talent for key roles in creating the film, including director of photography Jackson Montemayor, whose velvety depth of field gives full dignity to the family and their story, and co-director Catherine Hoffman. Funmi Ogunro contributed stellar editing, while a lively, hand-drawn animated overlay (by Anastasiya Bulavkina) is used to highlight the story’s frequent bursts of warmth and humor as well as the climax of the film, when the family enters the Cass County Justice Center.

Sedoria and Adolphus look on in witness while their son Matt, his wife Katrina, and their grandchildren Cameron and Ashleigh sign the paperwork. The animated line traces their new signatures, outlining the distinctive personalities of their signers and the irreducible humanity and free will that are their power in this life.

Parker is available to stream on The New Yorker website: www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-documentary/a-story-of-black-joy-and-family-names-in-parker.

Grace Suh

Grace Suh's work has received awards from the Edward F. Albee Foundation, National Endowment for the Arts USC Arts Journalism Fellowship, Hedgebrook Writers in Residence Program, Djerassi Resident Artist Program and Charlotte Street Foundation.

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