John Simon, one of the most acerbic critics in the business, was asked in an interview: “Mr. Simon: You pan at least three-quarters of what you see. What makes you think you can do any better?” He replied, “I admit that I cannot do any better. A critic has more in common with a plumber than with a film director.” Potty jokes aside, Simon would probably agree that a sports announcer who makes disparaging remarks about a player’s pitching should not be expected to get out on the mound and show him how to throw a ball. Godfrey Cheshire, formerly a film critic for the alternative newspaper New York Press and one of the best writers in the business, could probably fix a leak in the sink of the plantation that is a prominent character in his freshman movie, Moving Midway. He proves that he can direct as well as he can criticize.
Cheshire, who left the staff of New York Press for reasons that are unknown to all but the writer and his circle, lives in New York, a kin to North Carolina resident Charles Hinton Silver, owner of the family’s ancestral home, Midway Plantation. When he learns that Charlie and his wife Dena, dismayed by the vehicular traffic, strip malls and housing development surrounding their land, have decided not simply to move to a more bucolic area but to take their 160-year-old home with them, he can scarcely believe his ears. Intending to visit the Raleigh area with a digital camera, Cheshire instead is talked into making a full-scale documentary movie that would have greater significance than a video for the Silvers’ neighbors and friends. The film would expose the plantations of the American South as depicted in Gone with the Wind as myth rather than reality. Few actual antebellum plantations were as stately as the one illuminated by producer David O. Selznick in the 1939 classic movie. What’s even more significant, of particular relevance to this year’s Democratic Party campaign, is that Charlie Hinton Silver discovers that his all-white ancestry is a much a myth as the aforementioned plantation: In Charlie’s ancestral roots can be found African “blood” as well as at least one fellow of the Hebrew persuasion. As William Faulkner once said, “The past is not dead: it is not even past.”
To Midway, Charlie invites New York University African Studies professor Robert Hinton, a man who is obviously of mixed race and who traces his own background to the Hinton family slaves. Also invited to Midway are Brooklyn middle-school teacher Al Hinton and his 96-year-old grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Hinton. These African-Americans are related to the filmmaker, though the latter evokes the image of English aristocracy with his stately bearing and bell-clear narration.
The film never degenerates into a talking-heads bore. Much celluloid is given over to the actual move of the house from the time that levers, chains and steel rods are inserted here and there to the tentative first few meters of the truck transporting the house. The unusual move, according to some of Charlie’s family, friends and neighbors, must prove disturbing to the ghostly presence of former resident “Miss Mary.” Some use is made of clips from films that arose from the legends of the Old South, such as Gone with the Wind and D.W. Griffith’s monumental but racist masterpiece, Birth of a Nation.
The title Moving Midway serves not only a literal function but that of a trope, as it can be taken to mean that we Americans are midway between centuries of slavery and a perfect reconciliation of the races. The documentary is weighty where it must be, lighthearted in much of its presentation, of historical import, and thoroughly entertaining.