You can’t run away from trouble. There ain’t no place that far.
—Uncle Remus (James Baskett), Song of the South (1946)
You can’t ever keep something like it is.
—Betty Silver Howison
Visiting with his mother one sunny afternoon in North Carolina, Godfrey Cheshire is aware, he says, that “she has to leave early.” It’s only when she prepares to go, however, that he learns where she’s headed—to a Civil War reenactment. Since he’s come home with a film crew, Cheshire brings them with him as he follows Elizabeth (“Sis”) to the battlefield. His documentary, Moving Midway, includes footage from the outing: men in uniforms yelling, running about, and shooting blanks, as smoke wafts into the pretty blue sky.
Cheshire has also brought with him a newly discovered relative, Robert Hinton. A professor at New York University’s Africana Studies Program, Hinton has been researching the South, and his own family heritage, for years (“I couldn’t afford therapy,” he smiles, “so I went to graduate school in history”). Watching the reenactors with Sis, he’s briefly taken aback. When he asks Sis what she believes the war was “about,” she rejects the emphasis on slavery as a cause, and points to the Confederacy’s defense of “states’ rights.” “To do what?” asks Hinton. She has a ready answer: “To govern themselves and take of their own problems.”
Cut to Cheshire and Hinton standing apart from Sis. The reenactment, Hinton concludes, “represents to me a misremembering of the war, of Southern history, and why all this stuff happened. I think the absence of black people at a thing like this encourages people to think that the Civil War was not about slavery.” The camera shows a couple of white ladies in costume, with a small child in reenacting tow. When Cheshire mentions the “states’ rights argument,” Hinton sighs, “I think it’s an avoidance.”
An effort to address such ongoing avoidance, Cheshire’s film digs into the mythology of the American South by way of his own attachment to a 26,000-acre plantation called Midway. He grew up in Raleigh, but spent long childhood hours with his three cousins at Midway, down the road in the area now known as Knightdale. Cheshire remembers the place fondly. “When I was a kid exploring Midway,” he says, “There was still Confederate money stuffed in the drawers,” along with portraits of heroes like Robert E. Lee and Cheshire’s own white relatives. Of these, his great-great aunt Miss Mary “Mimi” Hinton, Midway’s owner when Cheshire was a boy, looms most profoundly. Photos indicate her fondness for Victorian dresses and perfectly styled curls, while Cheshire describes her as “a prolific writer, artist, and historian,” determined to preserve Midway as it was.
Despite and because of Mimi’s efforts, Midway’s current owner, Cheshire’s first cousin Charlie “Pooh” Hinton Silver decides to move the structure. When Cheshire’s film begins in 2004, the place is situated at a busy intersection and surrounded by strip malls—indicated by the rush of traffic sounds on the soundtrack and Pooh’s report that some 55,000 cars pass by each day. While the relocation to a quieter spot is a prodigious engineering feat that takes up several lengthy montages in the film, the more compelling story has to do with what Cheshire—a film critic who lives in New York City—calls “the imaginary plantation.”
As Midway stands in for this “potent icon,” it grants Cheshire the chance to talk about movies and the persistent resonance of U.S. popular culture. While his relatives make occasional references to Mimi’s ghost (they hope moving the house won’t upset her), he inserts shots from famous plantation films, from Gone with the Wind and Jezebel to Song of the South and Birth of a Nation, as well as a brief segment on the “profound” impact of Roots (which Cheshire describes in the most mundane terms, i.e., “a landmark in television entertainment” and “the most watched dramatic series in the history of television”). As these clips reinforce the familiar point that popular imagery shapes beliefs, memories, and politics, they also serve as helpful context for comments and recollections by Cheshire’s family members.
For example, the “happy slaves” of Gone with the Wind or Song of the South illustrate a prevalent but still disturbing assumption voiced by Sis concerning the slaves owned by her ancestors. “I want to say, I really think they were treated well. Nowadays, the news media want you to think that everybody was treated perfectly terribly, anybody that had a dark skin. That wasn’t so in my family.” While Cheshire notes here that his mother’s version of history echoes “a sentiment common to slave-owning families both during and after the days of slavery,” he makes no comment when his cousin Winky Silver offers the following: “Growing up at Midway with the coloreds,” he says, seated on a porch swing, “I spent the night in Molly Montague’s house in a bed with five niggers. Spend the night with ‘em, in the same bed, eat from the same table, drink out of the same thin. Played with ‘em. They were family, I mean as far as I was concerned. They loved you.”
As much as Moving Midway interrogates the past as myth, its inclusion of such a direct expression of racism here and now is alarming. While you can wonder how Cheshire responded to his relative during this interview, the film makes repeated use of Robert Hinton as a corrective. (Hinton is one of many relatives discovered by Cheshire during his filmmaking process, descended from slaveowner Charles Lewis Hinton, who had children with his slave cook named Salani.) It’s a typical strategy—the lone black man represents the black community, black history, and The Black Response to the innumerable modes of whiteness—but it is occasionally effective, primarily because Hinton speaks out plainly, instructing his white relatives with patience and generosity.
Even as his film suggests that Tara and other grand fictions of the South are harmful and blinding, Cheshire maintains and articulates an affection for the place—Midway, as well as the South—as a place. Hinton won’t have any of this. “When I was much younger,” he tells Cheshire, “I told a friend I wanted to be so rich I could buy the entire state of North Carolina and blacktop it.” The white man looks startled. Doesn’t he feel any connection to the land? “Not unless they ended up owning it,” answers Hinton. Cheshire comes back once again, hanging onto the romance a little longer. “I never owned [Midway],” he says, “But it’s still important to me.” Even as you might be thinking, “Right, and your white ancestors were also never owned,” Hinton lays out some other, basic material history: “In an agrarian society, controlling land is controlling your own destiny to some degree.” This, in a word, is what the myth of the Southern plantation incorporates and carries on: visions of destiny and history, industry and identity. Most important, as the film cannot resolve but does do well to point out, it frames possibility.