Earlier this month I mentioned re-watching Godfrey Cheshire’s Moving Midway. [Original review here.] Since then Mr. Cheshire kindly sat down to answer some questions:
The Strawfoot: The focus of the film is the physical relocation of your family’s ancestral home, Midway Plantation. Tell us about Midway and your cousin’s decision to move it.
Godfrey Cheshire: Midway Plantation was built in 1848 on land in central North Carolina that my mother’s family, the Hintons, had occupied since getting a land grant from the British crown circa 1740. When I was a kid, it was this magical, ancient realm where I spent many weekends; it was also the center of our family’s memory and holiday gatherings. Flash forward to 2002, when my first cousin Charlie Silver and his wife Dena, who now own Midway, tell me they are thinking of moving all its buildings to a new location (if they can find one) in order to escape the urban sprawl that’s encroaching on the property and making it unpleasant to live there. At that point I began thinking of making a film that would not only document the family drama and logistical challenges of this project, but that would also look at the conflicted image of the Southern plantation in American history.
Who is Robert Hinton and what is his role in the story?
For me, Robert was a godsend. In early 2004 I shot some initial footage for the film at Midway. When I returned to New York, I saw a letter in the New York Times Book Review from a man named Robert Hinton who said he had grown up in Raleigh and was now a historian who taught African-American studies at NYU. You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read that. I contacted him and he said his grandfather was born a slave at Midway, and it turns out he had done lots of research about the Hintons and their history. So he came aboard as the film’s Chief Historian and Associate Producer, and made innumerable contributions to it. He is on camera a lot in the film, which is great since he’s as witty and charismatic as he is knowledgeable.
Robert Hinton is not your blood relation. You discovered in making the film, however, that you have numerous African American relatives. What has that experience been like?
Well, the initial experience was quite stunning. I had grown up never suspecting that I had any African-American blood relations, but in the early stages of shooting, Charlie told me of having been visited by a black man who showed him evidence that we had a common mixed-race ancestor, a man named Ruffin Hinton, who was born in 1848, the product of a liaison between the builder of Midway and a slave. Charlie accepted this evidence, but soon afterwards the black man died and I was unable to locate his family. Then, in 2006, in the latter stage of shooting the film, Robert received an email from a middle-school teacher in Brooklyn named Al Hinton who said he was researching family history online and believed that he was kin to the Hintons of Midway. This was how we connected with the roughly 100 descendents of Ruffin Hinton, most of whom still live in North Carolina. They invited me to one of their family reunions and I was quite moved by the experience. Obviously the whole issue of slavery is a complex and painful one, but they were very warm and welcoming. I felt a real connection with them that came from this shared history. This was very important not just to the film but also to me personally; I felt like I was discovering a part of myself that I’d never known. I’ve kept in touch with some of these “new” cousins and I value these relationships greatly.
One of the film’s biggest strengths is the blending of the personal and the historical. How did the people depicted in the documentary react to the film?
For the most part, the reactions were very, very good. When we premiered the film at the 2007 Full Frame Documentary in Durham, N.C., members of the black and white sides of the family came for it, seemed to really enjoy the way the film explored the history and meaning of Midway, and met each other at the very celebratory party that was held afterwards. That’s been the general tenor of things since, too. However, I must note, rather sadly, that a few members of the white family seem to have been disaffected. They haven’t communicated with me, so I don’t know specifically what they’re upset about, but it’s too bad.
You are a film critic in your “day job.” In that capacity you were uniquely positioned to analyze the moonlight and magnolias interpretation of the Old South given to us in such films as Gone with the WInd. Was this Lost Cause narrative something you were always aware of, or did it become significant as the film project took off?
It was something I intended from the first, because I’ve always been interested in the image of the Southern plantation in popular culture, and I figured I couldn’t make a film about Midway without exploring the plantation’s meanings to Americans over the course of history. The “Lost Cause” mythology that you mention belongs to the late 19th/early 20th centuries and thus is only a part of the larger Plantation Myth, which started before the Civil War. When I began my research, I was surprised to find that the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture had a longer entry for “Plantation Myth” than it did for “Plantation,” suggesting that the imaginary plantation was even more important than the actual institution! In the film, I trace the evolution of the plantation’s image across several milestones of popular culture, from Uncle Tom’s Cabin through The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind to Roots: an evolution that of course both mirrored and helped create a whole complex set of attitudes about race, politics and history.
Have different viewers–white/black; Northern/Southern; older/younger–responded differently to the film?
That’s a good question, because I was frankly more concerned about one side in each of those pairings you mention: that is, I was a bit nervous about the reactions of black people, non-Southerners, and young people. But in every case I was extremely pleased with the responses. I think this is because the film intends to be inclusive and to respect all the people and points of view it includes – even ones that we don’t necessarily like or agree with. In that way, it “depolarizes” issues that seem inherently polarizing. Black people like it I think because it recognizes their struggles and shows me and my black cousins trying to bridge our divided histories. Northerners appreciate that it presents Southerners black and white as real people rather than as abstractions connected to certain “issues.” But I must say I’ve been most gratified by the reactions of young people, who are often supposed not to be interested in history. I didn’t give a single thought to this while making the film, but teachers have told me that students love the film because it has colorful real-life characters and an engaging, even suspenseful story that brings to life issues that can seem dry and remote in textbooks. I tell people that the best Q&A I did was with a ninth grade class in Virginia. They “got” the film on every level and asked amazingly sophisticated and thoughtful questions. I would love other history teachers to discover and use the film as a classroom tool.
The plantation house, along with several outbuildings, have been in the new spot for a few years now. What has the experience been like in the new location?
When we shot the last scene in the film, Charlie and Dena had only been back in the house four days, and it was all so brand-new that it seemed like a stage set. But since then it has really come back to life, not only as a truly gorgeous restoration of a historic home, but as a place where people live, work and entertain. I love going out there now. It’s like Midway has been reborn.
(images/top, North Carolina Digital Collections; bottom, Preservation North Carolina)