Whichever Way the Family Tree ["Finding Sam Lowe"]
How many of you have ancestors? Some of you put quite a bit of energy into tracing your family tree. For too many people, there’s an insurmountable obstacle called slavery, where people were ripped and flung from family history.
In the documentary “Finding Sam Lowe” Paula Madison says, “I am not defined by slavery.” This Black woman, who had no path to follow beyond her grandmother, pursued a curious opportunity through her mother’s father. Black yet Chinese, Paula Madison had a Chinese grandfather. Sam Lowe returned to China, leaving Jamaica in the early 1930s, never to be heard from again. (Thousands from China – almost all men – were brought to Jamaica in waves as far back as 1854.)
In Jamaica, Madison’s grandmother had a daughter who moved to New York City. As Paula Madison tells it, her poor immigrant mom admonished, “You will not be poor. You will be rich. That’s what I came here for.” Mom encouraged a good education: “I did not come to this country for you to get B’s.” Madison grew up and carved a successful career behind the scenes in television. Her two brothers, with whom she is very close, also fared very well.
Part luck and part quest, hope sprang ancestral. Madison knew of Chinese families who could trace back 600 years and more.
As filmmaking goes, “Finding Sam Lowe” feels somewhat like a high-production-value home movie. The way Paula commands her world seems both highly self-indulgent and protectively low-key. Withal, the film offers a reflective ride-along that’s worth taking – in addition to its case study in genealogy.
“Finding Sam Lowe” is a needed example that the theme of personal stories need not be about race – even when it is. Paula’s husband does bring it to her attention that she is a Black person knocking on Chinese people’s doors. Paula only saw the opportunity of knocking on perfectly imperfect family connection.