In 2004, veteran film critic Godfrey Cheshire was presented with an interesting subject for a documentary. For completely unexpected reasons, it soon became a riveting subject, and then a life-changing one. Now it's the focus of Cheshire's first feature, "Moving Midway," an extraordinary picture that delves into the most painful recess of American racial relations.
Cheshire (with whom I'm acquainted) grew up in Raleigh in the 1950s and '60s, and has deep roots in North Carolina, with family branches that trace back into the 18th century and remain centered on an ancestral, pre-Civil War mansion, the Midway Plantation, not far from Raleigh. At the beginning of the movie, he has received word that his cousin Charlie, Midway's current owner, fed up with the unstoppable encroachment of highways, strip malls and fast-food joints, has decided to move the old mansion, along with its outbuildings, to a rural location more like its original environs. Cheshire decides to document the move.
Returning to Midway from his home in New York, Cheshire is informed by Charlie that he has been contacted by a black man who has proved to him that, because of a sexual liaison between their great-great-great-grandfather Charles Hinton and a slave cook named Selanie, there is a previously unknown black branch of their family — more than 100 new relatives. Back in New York, Cheshire seeks out Dr. Robert Hinton, a professor of Africana Studies at New York University, who agrees to provide his research expertise in the making of the film. (Hinton isn't a blood relation to Cheshire or Charlie; his ancestors were slaves at Midway and, as was common, took — or were assigned — the family's name. Hinton, a civil-rights militant in his youth, says that now, in his sixties, he has come to terms with his troubling background: "I realized I had a Southern identity as well as an African-American identity.")
Cheshire duly films the actual moving of Midway — a remarkable feat that entails lifting the mansion up on wheels and carting it off over some very tricky terrain to its new location. But the most illuminating aspect of the picture is the quick acceptance of the family's new racial dimension by both its white and black branches, an acceptance that has a distinctively Southern grace and warmth. This is most vividly displayed at a big family party at the end of the film — after Midway has arrived at its new site — that brings them all together for the first time.
"Moving Midway" isn't a simple-minded brotherhood-of-man tract. The film is spiked with artfully edited excerpts from some of the movies that have shaped American racial attitudes over the years, from "Birth of a Nation" and "Song of the South" (the 1946 Disney hit that featured the happy-slave storyteller "Uncle Remus") to the 1939 plantation blockbuster "Gone With the Wind" (which, as Cheshire says in a voiceover, "transports us back to a golden age — of Hollywood"). But the picture has an extraordinary feeling of calm inquiry (you can easily imagine the more sensationalized treatment this material might have been given by a Northern filmmaker); and even the occasional tart observations of some of its participants have a grudging affection. When Cheshire takes Robert Hinton to observe a local reenactment of a Civil War battle, the professor musters a wry smile. "I'm perfectly happy to have them keep fighting the war," he says, "as long as they keep losing it."
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