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Ancestral Roots

New York-based film critic Godfrey Cheshire was attending a Christmas gathering with his family in North Carolina when he received some surprising news from his cousin Charlie. Midway Plantation, the ancestral home of their extended family since the 1840s, was to be transplanted to a new location. In the name of progress, the city of Raleigh was expanding a highway and strip malls. If the plantation house and its surrounding buildings were not moved, the deterioration of the surrounding environment would be so drastic, future generations would not want to live there.

Charlie’s decision sparked controversy within the family, with conflicted attitudes about whether the traditions associated with the southern plantation is found in the land itself, or the collective history within the buildings. This stirred up memories within Cheshire of his childhood, and of the legends and stories associated with the place. As a critic, Cheshire has always been interested in looking at the context of movies and what they mean. With his film Moving Midway, he is also creating an essay about our perception of the southern plantation, weaving his way through mythologies and historical realities, the ideas inherited from popular culture and propaganda, and actual accounts from within his family and beyond.

Cheshire’s search inevitably led to the institution of slavery at Midway, and the descendents of those slaves. He began a collaboration and partnership with a professor of African-American studies at NYU named Robert Hinton, whose grandfather was born a slave on the plantation. Through their dialogue, sometimes spirited and frequently illuminating, Cheshire and Hinton look at the plantation house from a racial perspective, and its long-term effects on society, but also from a personal one as Cheshire meets his African-American relatives for the first time who have also traced their roots back to his family.

At one point, Cheshire had seven camera crews at work documenting the physical move of Midway Plantation as it is lifted off of its foundations and dragged by truck across a rugged landscape. The epic nature of this undertaking matches the historical and individual journey Cheshire takes us through. Regarding the film now, it seems almost strange to consider its auspicious beginnings, where he was hoping to create a document for his family, and it blossomed into so much more.

First Run Features opens the film this weekend.


FILMMAKER: It seems like Moving Midway started out as a home movie, and it expanded into a larger project.

CHESHIRE: When my cousin Charlie Silver told me at Christmas of 2002 that he was thinking about moving Midway Plantation, our family’s ancestral home, I was shocked. The place [contained] generations of my family’s collective identity, so the idea of digging up this building and hauling it somewhere else was a blow. I had long thought this plantation was worthy of being filmed, and obviously now was the time it had to be done. I thought that I could just get a digital camera, interview family members and, as you say, make a home movie. The change happened in New York when I was asking friends, “What sort of camera should I get?” When I told them what it was for, they responded, “Gosh, that’s such a great subject. You ought to make a real movie about that.” I started to wonder what a “real movie” meant.

FILMMAKER: It sounds like the scale of the project, which at one point involved seven camera crews documenting the actual moving of Midway, matches the scale of your idea. There are southern ties to the land that are challenged when the plantation house is moved, as it is literally being uprooted.

CHESHIRE: There’s a question at the heart of this film that I didn’t verbalize, but is implicit to anyone who sees it, which is, “What is the plantation? Is it the land, or is it the buildings?” That’s the emotional conflict the family went through. Charles’s decision was based on his idea that the plantation is the building our ancestors built, that we grew up in. Others feel like there is an argument to be made, or at least very strong feelings, attached to the idea that the plantation is really the land and you can’t transplant the buildings and have it be the same place. There are complicated feelings around this, because the land is a part of southern identity. Your own roots literally go down into this dirt and soil that your ancestors have been living on for generations.

FILMMAKER: When most people think of the mythology of the plantation, it’s tied in with ideas we’ve received from popular culture like Gone With The Wind.

CHESHIRE: When I started my research, I was shocked by the lack of academic work that has been done. I could only find one book in all my research that was titled The Southern Plantation by Francis Pendleton Gaines. It was written in 1924, fifteen years before Gone With The Wind, and can be ordered online. This book is actually not about Southern plantations but about the mythology of the plantation up until that point.

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the first novels that romanticized the plantation appeared in the 1830s, at the same time as significant abolitionist propaganda campaigns. In the late 19th Century, you had a population boom and very rapid industrialization in the northeast. All of these printing presses were trying to satisfy a voracious need for content, and people preferred a kind of fantasy literature. This spawned a couple of prominent genres, one being the western and the other being the southern romance, basically saying these were noble cavaliers trying to defend their besieged way of life. It’s ironic that the north, which had recently defeated the south, embraced this romantic myth so completely, and not only in the romantic literature of the cheap popular press. The myth permeated virtually all of American popular culture from visual arts to music to theater to literature to just about anything you can name.

FILMMAKER: But our own memories of childhood are romanticized as well, and you spent significant parts of your childhood at Midway Plantation.

CHESHIRE: I think everybody romanticizes childhood. But as you grow older, without denying the nostalgia, [one has to] keep it in perspective, see where your feelings come from and deal with them realistically if you can. Certainly, I was aware going into this that part of my impetus were my feelings about the plantation based on my childhood experiences. To me, it was this wonderful escape from humdrum daily suburban life in Raleigh, that on weekends as a child I was able to take a trip back to another century. My great-great aunt had tried to keep things from changing since the Civil War. There was no heat in the house, and my grandmother would wake up and make fires. My profound fascination with history may have started there, based on the stories I heard and these great imaginings of epics, heroes and distant lands.

FILMMAKER: Slavery ties into our collective idea of the southern plantation. When you started this project, how did you consider incorporating this into the film?

CHESHIRE: I initially planned to have the discussion of slavery be part of the essay I was writing within the film, and connect it to my family’s memory of slavery. There were stories that were passed down about individual slaves, [along with] attitudes and memories people had. Southerners have a lot of ideas that are not politically correct, which don’t make it into the public record. I wanted to record these without necessarily judging them too much. But I also wanted to deal with the way the plantation had evolved in the popular imagination going from this very early time when slavery was romanticized to being contradicted by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which became the best selling American novel of all time creating the dominant view that plantation owners must have been bad. Some of the propaganda suggested to northerners that slaves all hated where they lived, and the moment they had the chance they would slit their masters throats and run away, which was almost never the truth.

There was [another shift with] the publication of Roots, which registered an enormous impact on national attitudes about race. African-Americans developed a great interest in pursuing their genealogy. Up until that point, the dominant attitude was it is better to look forward than look back, and forget about those bad old days. Once Roots came along, there was a sudden, immense interest in re-exploring where they came from, including going back to the plantation roots and seeing what those were all about. All these things were forming the culminating arc I would tell in the essay part of the film.

FILMMAKER: That changed after you started shooting.

CHESHIRE: It became less of a historical third-person essay and much more of a first-person story of me rediscovering this relationship to slavery within my own family. Two significant events changed my approach. By chance, I met Dr. Robert Hinton, a historian who teaches African-American studies at New York University. He had the name of my mother’s family, the Hinton family, and his grandfather was born a slave at Midway Plantation. He had done extensive research, and told me the first time I met him that he had a premonition he would meet someone from our family. This gave both of us goose bumps, and he agreed right away to join me as my chief collaborator on the film. He later said that he had this idea that all the work he had done until that point was preparing him to work on this film, and he had a great deal of input on how we examined this question, as well as portraying it historically.

The second thing was that in early 2004 when we interviewed Charlie, he told us about being visited by a black man who said he was kin. I spent a long time unsuccessfully searching for the family of this man, who had passed away. Two years later, almost at the end of filming, Robert got an email from a Brooklyn middle school teacher named Al Hinton. He said his Internet research had convinced him that he was kin to me from Midway. We met him and his 96-year-old father Abraham, who has a memory going back to our common mixed-race ancestor born in 1848. This personal reconnecting with the black part of the family, which I didn’t even know I had, took over that part of the story. I feel very honored to have this relationship with them and feel grateful to them for being so generous and good-hearted throughout this journey we have taken together.

FILMMAKER: When you are doing a first person documentary, how do you separate yourself and your family and friends from being a part of this narrative construct?

CHESHIRE: If I had given it more thought, I might have been too hesitant. It was startling to get back to the editing room in New York, viewing my family as characters. I saw the editor react to these people he didn’t know at all, saying, “That’s really funny, that’s not so interesting, and that’s really fascinating.” I hadn’t really expected to be objectifying them in that way, but the more involved I became in the process, the more comfortable I became, while trying to preserve the idea of representing them in a way that was fond, understanding, and non-caricaturing.

As far as my own presence in the film, I’m basically the narrator and a very peripheral character, not a main one. The main characters of the film were always intended to be the family members who were most concerned with moving Midway, and the place itself. I wound up taking on a larger role when I ended up going to meet Al and his father Abraham and attended their family reunion in North Carolina. Meeting other members of the African-American part of the family, my “character” bridges the two sides of the family. I wasn’t so reticent about it once it started evolving in this organic way.

FILMMAKER: I am curious about the audience response to the film, since the impetus of the movie seems to be about creating a dialogue with them.

CHESHIRE: The film exists to challenge preconceived notions about the south and history that people have, and also get them to separate in their own minds what about plantations, which is just one aspect of the south, are things they know from history and what is known from popular culture. We need to continue looking at our attitudes about race in history based on this complex interpenetration of reality and myth. This film is an effort to throw a light on certain things that haven’t been discussed adequately until now, as far as I’m concerned. One of the things that has been most gratifying to me is it gets strong emotional reactions from people. People have told me they and their friends talked about the film for the rest of the evening, and the next day, and that they want to see it again. The fact that people are engaged by it or learned something and want to talk out the issues has been the most valuable part of this experience.

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