Judge Gordon Sullivan moved more than midway toward liking this documentary.
A Southern Plantation and the Legacy of Slavery
Moving Midway premiered at Durham's Full Frame Film Festival in 2007. I was drawn to the screening because I'd read some film criticism by the director, Godfrey Cheshire. I admired him as a writer, although I found myself disagreeing with his assessment of films more often than not, and I admit a certain train-wreck fascination drew me to the screening. Common wisdom holds that critics are merely failed artists, and I was intensely curious to see if Cheshire could navigate the often wide chasm between film critic and filmmaker. I knew very little about the film beforehand (the program was vague—something about moving a house), but once the credits rolled I was riveted by a (quite literal) moving story of family, race, and home that tackled big themes on Southern identity. Because of its local implications (Midway was moved about 30 miles from where I sat at the film festival) and the startling yet simple insights into what it means to be Southern, I found Moving Midway the most interesting film of the festival. It's been two years, and Cheshire's directorial debut has finally been released by First Run Features. It's an easy recommendation for anyone who cares about the difficulties of Southern identity in the twenty-first century.
Facts of the Case
Raleigh, N.C.-born, New York-based film critic Godfrey Cheshire returned to his cousin "Pooh" Hinton's family home, the once-great Midway Plantation, in 2004 to discover that encroaching commercialization (including a number of strip malls) and the intersection of two major highways (U.S. 64 and Interstate 540) had made Midway unlivable. Pooh's idea was to pick up the plantation house and its outbuildings and transplant them to a new location so that the house that his family (including cousin Godfrey) grew up in can be saved, even if the original land has to go to developers. Godfrey decides to film the odyssey of the house, and while researching the plantation's history, discovers an African-American branch of his family that was previously unknown. The moving of Midway is interwoven with the discovery of this new branch of the family, along with a cinematic history of the plantation.
Although Midway Plantation is the central figure in Moving Midway, Cheshire effortlessly weaves four main stories to create his film:
• The centerpiece is obviously the physical transplant of the house itself. We're treated to interviews with the family as they share their reactions to the move. We see the search for a suitable location, the deal that gets them the land, and the preparations for the move. Finally, Cheshire films the move itself, so we see the house raised up, loaded on a truck, and pulled overland to a new location. This thread is fascinating in a "Modern Marvels" kind of way, but is ultimately only the linchpin that holds the other stories in place.
• In order to present the significance of the moving of Midway, Cheshire also gives the audience the history of the house, from its construction in 1848 until the present. Much of this takes the form of meditations on the family's matriarch, Mimi, who was guardian of the family's stories. We also learn that her ghost haunts Midway. It is while doing the research for this portion of the film that Godfrey learns of a new branch of family.
• The third major thread of this story concerns the descendants of Ruffin Hinton, who was the mixed-race son of Charles Lewis Hinton (builder of Midway) and his cook. These relations include Robert Hinton, the head of Africana Studies at NYU and the chief historian on the film, as well as Abraham Lincoln Hinton, the 98-year-old grandson of Ruffin Hinton.
• The film's final thread shows Cheshire's film roots. Because of the difficult racial implications still bound up in the plantation, Cheshire explores the history of the plantation, especially its mythic status. Most of his examples are from film, including Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. These moments provide interesting insights into the conflicting views plantations evoke even today.
Midway is obviously the center of this story, but it's a building, not a person, so while the journey is interesting, the film would be nothing without its human characters. Although Charles "Pooh" Hinton is the patriarch of the family and the authority on the fate of Midway, Robert Hinton, whose story intersects with Midway only late in his life, is the true emotional center of the film. Robert is the one we get to see change and grow in response to the revelations of shared ancestry. In fact, Godfrey, "Pooh," and the rest of the "white" Hinton family seem to just blithely accept their new relations, while Robert voices mixed feelings over the whole affair. In one of the film's better moments, he admits that he's disappointed that he likes all the members of the "white" Hinton family he's met because now he can't put his anger over the twisted relations between blacks and whites onto them. His honesty, both emotional and historical, combined with his sense of humor make him the most compelling "character" in this documentary.
Although Moving Midway takes on large themes of Southern identity, urbanization, race relations, and the tangled web of family, it's ultimately a film of small scenes, not grand themes (in this way, Cheshire seems to have taken Ross McElwee's Bright Leaves as a model). The film is filled with sublime moments, like the cleaning crew discussing the ghosts of Midway, Godfrey's mother refusing to look out the car window as they drive past the shopping center built on Midway's old ground, or the brilliant scene where Robert Hinton, a Yale History graduate, attends a Civil War re-enactment with Godfrey and his mother and utters the line, "I'm perfectly happy for them to keep fighting the war, as long as they keep losing it."
The DVD from First Run does a pretty decent job with the material considering it's a documentary and not a summer blockbuster. The video transfer is generally pretty clean, although a bit of noise occasionally pops up, and the audio is ably presented with no hiss or distortion. However, location sound is used and is often a little rough, so the lack of subtitles is a bit disappointing. Extras are worthwhile though not extensive. There are three interesting interview segments that didn't make it into the feature, as well as a series of pictures on "How to Move a House." There are also biographies for the filmmakers, and some DVD-ROM text features on the history of Midway.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite my love for the movie, I do a have a few complaints. First, although the film deals honestly with the difficult racial situation surrounding the plantation, the film fails to touch on any of the class-related issues surrounding Midway. We watch as "Pooh" accepts an offer to pay $26,000 an acre for forty-six acres of land to put the house and buildings on. That's a cool $1.2 million, and we never learn how much the family made selling the land to developers. Then, there's the cost of the Herculean feat of moving the house itself, which we never learn the cost of. I'm not expecting Cheshire to deal with all of the economic woes of the South in the film, but I definitely feel a little more on the monetary details of the moving would have strengthened the film.
My only other complaint is that sometimes the familial relationships in the film aren't one hundred percent clear. Visually, I was impressed by the "family tree" that Cheshire put on screen, but its winding lines left me without a clear picture of the relationships between the various branches of the family. However, even though some of the relationships remained a bit fuzzy, the story of Midway still hit home.
I could gush about the film all day, but suffice it to say if you have any interest at all in the South, American history, or the problems of race relations, Moving Midway is not to be missed. The DVD from First Run is a little light on extras, but is otherwise a great way to see this excellent documentary.
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