Southern myths rise up, then drop like flies in the enthralling documentary Moving Midway, and all because director Godfrey Cheshire’s cousin is moving house. Literally.
If it were only about the mind-boggling logistics of lifting Charles Hinton Silver’s antebellum ancestral home near Raleigh, North Carolina, off its august foundations—shortly to be occupied by a spanking new Target and Home Depot—and trucking it to a sylvan new site far from the jam-packed interstate, the movie would be a roaring good time, not to mention a YouTube keeper for generations of Hinton spawn to come. But Cheshire—a gifted, frequently cranky New York–based film critic and, as it turns out, an equally accomplished social historian—sees way beyond the nostalgia that the move stirs in his extended family.
Cheshire shares their regret, if not their stout belief that the house is haunted by the ghost of the family’s revisionist historian, Miss Mary Hinton, a rabid Europhile whose idea of a fashion icon was Queen Victoria, and who worked tirelessly to trace a dynastic line from the Hintons to British and French nobility. But Cheshire’s interest goes beyond his relatives, a cheerful lot he’s clearly fond of despite their improvised vision of where they came from and who they are.
Indeed, his subject is precisely the self-aggrandizing illusions about race, class, and identity that have shaped the self-image of Southern landed gentry, stoked by Hollywood movies from Birth of a Nation through Gone With the Wind to the television series Roots. While Charlie and his perky wife Dena pack and then unpack their handsomely appointed goods and chattels, Cheshire carries out his own deft dismantling of the myths that have congealed around loaded words like “plantation” and “pure blood” among the self-styled Southern aristocracy, then redefines them within the troubled history of American slavery and race relations.
Given that sex between wealthy Southern landowners and their slaves was far more habitual than aberrant, and that Cheshire’s Durham cousin Macky Alston already made the memorable 1997 documentary Family Name, about his own extended kinship network of former slaves, I have to assume it’s a dramatist’s instinct that makes Cheshire—who appears in the movie in the double role of loyal family member and ironic observer—come off so surprised that the Hintons have a black offshoot stemming from an ancestor’s liaison with his cook. And was it really serendipity that Robert Hinton, a former black nationalist and now a history professor at NYU, fell into Cheshire’s lap via a strong letter he wrote to The New York Times excoriating the black bourgeoisie?
Never mind: Robert, a descendant of slaves who took the family name, is a fascinating man who becomes the movie’s ambivalent alterna-historian with an associate-producer credit. As much (one hopes) to set the cat among the pigeons as to heal old wounds, Cheshire brings Robert to dinner at Midway, and though the white Hintons smother him in Southern hospitality, which he returns with beg-to-differ civility, you can almost hear everyone walking on eggshells. The Hintons are great party-givers, and as more and more black kin show up for one reunion or another to testify to the multi-ethnic ancestry of the family—whose “pure blood” turns out to be mixed with that of Mexicans and Jews, among others—both sides remain remarkably cordial and committed to family tradition despite their radically different exposure to it.
The civility includes Cheshire, who’s appalled by the tacky “Shoppes at Midway Plantation” that springs up on the land vacated by his cousins, and who rarely confronts his family directly about their selective memory. Then again, he doesn’t need to, because neither his entertaining pictorial history of white paternalism nor the eloquent testimony of black historian John Hope Franklin comes close to the stuff the Hintons blurt out in this craftily edited film. Cheshire’s own mother, an enchanting old dame whose wedding gown bore a striking resemblance to Scarlett O’Hara’s, insists that the Civil War was fought more over states’ rights than over slavery and that, in any case, slaves were well-treated; Charlie’s younger brother proudly tells Cheshire that as a child he was frequently outsourced to the help, where he shared a bed with five “niggers” who were “lahk family.” Another brother agrees that the Hintons are too congenitally “kahnd” to have mistreated their slaves.
Cheshire’s mission is to show that slavery and its sustaining ideology were institutionally and constitutionally “unkahnd.” Mission accomplished, but for all its subversive intent, the tone of Moving Midway is no more bitter or hopeless than that of the forgotten side of the family. As the house comes to rest on its new foundations, it seems to its occupants to grow lighter. The imperious ghost of Miss Mary dims, and Charlie throws one more party—a housewarming for the whole family suspended midway between the past and the future.