Moving Midway begins with film critic-turned-documentarian Godfrey Cheshire nicely encapsulating the lingering allure and symbolic power of Southern plantations. "It's one of the most potent icons every produced by American popular culture," says Cheshire in voiceover. "It is a place of violence and gentility, of pride and shame, music and joy and devastating defeat."
And he goes on to prove it, too, in this fascinating and poignant documentary that uses an ostensibly personal tale to examine some particularly dubious American mythologizing.
Sepia-toned legend and unpleasant truths swirl around Midway Plantation, built in Raleigh, N.C., more than a dozen years before the advent of the Civil War. For Cheshire, Midway is inexorably linked with the memories of childhood. A North Carolina native, Cheshire spent many a "strange and magical" weekend at the secluded estate, hanging out with cousins known (in true Southern Gothic style) by such nicknames as "Pooh," "Winkie" and "Possum."
The eldest of those boys, Charlie "Pooh" Silver, grew up to inherit Midway, and he is the one left to deal with the headaches of urban sprawl and the inevitable arrival of strip malls and shopping centers. So he decides to do something about it. Charlie hires a team of engineers to lift the entire plantation and move it to a more peaceful location outside of Raleigh.
That journey across town prompts a different type of odyssey for our filmmaker/narrator. Launching from William Faulkner's oft-quoted observation that "the past isn't dead; it isn't even past," Cheshire uses archival photos and interviews with family members, including his proud Southern mama, to explore the Midway Plantation of family lore and how it is at odds with unvarnished history.
Then something unexpected happens. Happenstance leads Cheshire to Robert Hilton, an African studies professor at New York University. Hilton, who is African-American, is descended from slaves who lived and toiled at Midway Plantation. With Robert's amiable prodding, Cheshire looks beyond his own whitewashed nostalgia, to a plantation marked by (as they all were) enslavement, exploitation and cruelty. With the vestiges of 19th century Southern life growing extinct, Cheshire's film becomes a larger treatise about how the past has been massaged and reshaped by the gauzy lens of memory. At a Civil War battle reenactment, Robert is bemused to discover that Cheshire's mother believes the war was principally a matter of "states' rights," and not slavery.
Cheshire also makes clever use of his expertise in cinema. Interspersed with the story of Midway Plantation are sequences about how such seminal films as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind reflected the romanticizing of Southern plantation life.
Moving Midway muses on the soothing lies that white Southerners tell themselves, but Cheshire is not out to embarrass or humiliate. A transplanted Southerner now at home with the New York intelligentsia, he possesses an understanding of his subject that lends Moving Midway warmth and humanity. The movie deals with weighty topics, but it is far from a somber experience. It has genuine humor -- it's a hoot how everyone accepts the belief that the plantation is haunted by the ghost of Cheshire's great-great-aunt, Mary "Mimi" Hilliard Hinton -- and demonstrates real affection for most of the interviewees. It helps, too, that the film's interviewees, chiefly Charlie and Robert, are so damned likable.
Picture quality is strong and clear, albeit with a TV-documentary flatness. Consistency varies according to the source material used (the archival movie and TV clips used are grainy and washed out), but these are quibbles.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 is unremarkable but gets the job done for the voiceover-heavy narrative. No subtitles are available.
There is an eclectic smattering of extra scenes and interviews. Algia Mae Hinton, who contributes the film's score, shows her stuff in a four-minute, 57-second clip. Recording artist DJ Spooky discusses his hiphop remix of Birth of a Nation (3:16), while "Winkie" Silver (3:33) offers his thoughts on the differences between "colored" and "black."
How to Move a House is a photo gallery chronicling the move of Midway Plantation. Also included are two DVD-ROM features and filmmaker biographies.
Documentary buffs are well-advised to seek out this hidden gem. Moving Midway is a surprisingly affecting portrait of a man's attempt to reconcile a family's romanticized past with a not-so-wondrous reality. Sentimental but never sentimentalized, the doc slowly works its spell.