September 18, 2008

Moving Midway

Director: Godfrey Cheshire

MPAA Rating: Unrated

Running Time: 1 hour, 38 minutes

Near the conclusion of Godfrey Cheshire’s documentary, Moving Midway, a family reunion of sorts takes place at the recently relocated antebellum manor that once served as the epicenter for a sprawling Southern plantation. Cheshire’s family, including his mother and the cousin who owns the white-board house, meet their African-American kin with whom they share a common bloodline dating back to Charles Lewis Hinton, twice treasurer of North Carolina in the 1840s and the founder of Midway Plantation.

As the families gather in the driveway, the home’s owner, Charlie Silver, cordially invites the elderly Hinton patriarch, Abraham, into the house. “Oh, I can go in?” the black man responds with equal parts courtesy, hesitancy, and surprise. The answer to Abraham’s query is obvious, especially by the end of Cheshire’s multi-layered personal, historical, and literal odyssey. The real significance stems from the mere fact that Abraham deems it necessary to ask the question.

In 2004, Cheshire, a longtime New York City-based film critic, returned to his native Raleigh upon learning that his family planned to relocate the ancestral Midway plantation home as a means to save it from (and make way for) encroaching suburban sprawl that had gradually supplanted the tranquility of moonlight and magnolias with the den of multi-lane highways and strip malls. Against the backdrop of the actual move, Cheshire explores the Southern plantation phenomenon, from its nefarious historical roots to the mythos concocted by such pop-culture icons as Gone With The Wind and Birth of a Nation.

Cheshire also embarks on a journey of self-discovery, scaling the once concealed, now forgotten branches of his family tree. He fortuitously meets Robert Hinton, a professor of Africana Studies at New York University, whom Cheshire learns is a distant cousin and fellow transplanted Southerner who grew up in Raleigh’s Chavis Heights projects. While Cheshire’s ancestry is of the master’s house, Hinton’s lineage reaches back to the slaves who once toiled in Midway’s fields, beginning with Mingo, a West African slave who accompanied the first Hinton inhabitant to central N.C. in the mid-1700s.

Cheshire admittedly and unabashedly emulates the filmmaking style of Ross McElwee, placing himself squarely on-camera throughout the film and contributing voiceover narration off-camera. The narrative is steady yet leisurely; the footage of the long, arduous house-moving itself, in particular, unfolds with the pace of a Sunday afternoon stroll.

Still, for all its personal and historical appeal, the true jolt – and enduring lesson – of Moving Midway comes into sharp focus after the move. The former plantation property is quickly flattened and bulldozed to make way for “The Shoppes at Midway Plantation,” a cookie-cutter shopping center. And, just beyond the preserved slave burial ground, a sign advertises the opening of Knightdale’s newest residential subdivision, “Mingo Creek.”

For all the earnest evocation of discovery, reconciliation, and change, Midway Plantation is ultimately reclaimed by the very thing that gave rise to it in the first place: commerce. Cheshire opens Moving Midway by accurately reciting that the plantation was the “original foundation of the American economy.” Here, its agrarian utility is pushed out to make way for more retail-oriented commercialism. And slaves – or at least their identities – are still being exploited for economic gain. Midway may have been moved, but its purpose stayed behind.

Neil Morris

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