With the obvious exception of my girlfriend Debbie, there are few things in this world that make me happier than seeing a great independent film get distribution. And so it is with great pride and delight that I announce that “Moving Midway,” the film which won last year’s Chizfilm Award for Best Documentary, has just signed a distribution deal with First Run Features. It will be released in theatres in New York in September; national distribution is expected to follow shortly thereafter.
The movie was made by film critic and documentarian Godfrey Cheshire, who comes from a family, the Hintons, that can trace their ancestry back to Charlemagne. They came to America before the Revolutionary War to claim and settle a 26,000 acre Southern plantation near present-day Raleigh, North Carolina. Dubbed Midway Plantation, little remains two-and-a-half centuries later. As suburban sprawl encroaches, Cheshire’s cousin, Charlie Silver, the current owner, announces plans to literally uproot the family homestead, which was built in 1848, and move it to a new location several miles away.
So begins an amazing journey and discovery which Cheshire documents with remarkable insight. In preparation for the move, some very interesting facts come to light, including the revelation that there is a whole other branch of the Hinton family they never knew about: the African-American branch, descended from one of the Midway Plantation slaves with whom the great-great-great-grandfather had an affair.
That, as well as the physical moving and concerns for what many in the family believe to be the ghosts of their ancestors, causes tension in the family. And as Cheshire begins to explore the true history of the ante-bellum plantation, a real conflict emerges between the myth and the reality of the slave-labor-driven pre Civil War South.
While the technical difficulties of moving a large house are filmed with amazing camerawork for a documentary (such as crane shots, shots from unusual angles including inside the moving house, and even helicopter shots), the movie, unlike the History Channel TV show “Mega Movers,” focuses less on the technical maneuverings and more on the social, historical, and cultural implications.
Examining how views of the Southern plantation have changed over time by looking at culture-shaping movies such as “Birth of a Nation,” “Gone with the Wind,” and “Roots,” Cheshire provides real insight into why popular notions—including those within his own family—differ so much from the reality. The contrast is quite telling when we see that, to the Caucasian branch of the family, the house is the most important part of Midway Plantation, whereas to Robert Hinton, the African-American, it is the least important.
Interviews with scholars, including John Hope Franklin, offer additional insight into issues of land, race, history, myth, culture, and how these ideas interweave together in the contemporary American South.
To see the meeting between the descendants of slaves and the descendants of their owners, which evokes King’s dream, is quite emotional, not to mention extremely interesting as some are more eager than others to embrace such an encounter. And while there may be many mixed feelings and emotions within this extended family about the moving of Midway and the revelations the event has triggered, it’s definitely a valuable learning experience for the filmmaker, his family, and the audience.
I’ve now seen this movie four times. I was privileged to preview a copy for the Virginia Film Festival last summer, when I worked for them as a writer. I’ve since chosen to watch it three more times, including at the prestigious New Directors New Films festival in New York, last March. I have seen no other film, in my entire life, that many times within such a short period. And what makes that statistic all the more remarkable is that the film hadn’t yet found a distributor.
But now it has, and so everyone can soon see it. And when you do, make sure you stay through the closing credits because there is a very interesting postscript.
So my deepest congratulations to Mr. Cheshire on getting distribution; and also congratulations to First Run Features for recognizing the film’s remarkable insight into a unique piece of American history and culture provoked by the simple—or not so simple—moving of buildings.
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