Monday, November 30, 2009

Moving Midway

The documentary Moving Midway went completely under my radar when it came out in 2008, but I caught up with it on DVD over the long holiday weekend. This anything-but-simple story about moving a North Carolina plantation house is about as good a portrait of the contemporary South as I can imagine. Full of unexpected twists, ironies, and racial tensions, it's also just the sort of thing that Hollywood would royally butcher.

Hollywood's long and curious love affair with the South, and particularly its portrayals of antebellum plantation life, is a preoccupation of filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire, a New York-based critic and cousin to the owner of Midway Plantation. Whether it's the romantic fantasy of Gone With The Wind, the Southern Gothic terror of Deliverance, or the outright racist revisionism of Birth of a Nation, Hollywood has had difficulty telling Southern stories without distorting the picture, either patronizing or demonizing its subjects. Moving Midway, probably because it was made by a Southerner who had the added advantage of being related to most of his subjects, is refreshingly free of caricature (that's not to say that there aren't some molasses-thick accents and charmingly eccentric behavior on display), stereotyping, or exploitation. The film portrays a series of very distinct individuals rather than a collection of "types" or a strange, massed "other", and is therefore capable of surprising us with the way people speak, behave and interact.

The discovery of a whole line of descendants of the family's slaves and their subsequent participation in the film and the events surrounding the house relocation provide Moving Midway with some of its best moments and a compelling second storyline to add to the titular drama. The interactions between the descendants of slaves and the descendants of their masters is, as you would expect, fascinating to watch and somewhat fraught with tension. Southern cordiality reigns, but there's clearly a lot going on beneath the surface on both sides as a result of the history involved.

Dr. Robert Hinton, an NYU professor, North Carolina native, and the first of the slave descendants to become involved in the film (eventually supervising all the historical research), plays a key role, giving voice to the mixed emotions stirred up by the contemplation of the house and its history and expressing concerns that might otherwise be left to simmer unspoken. In one memorable moment in the film (at a Civil War reenactment, no less), Hinton has the perfect rejoinder when he hears the old saw about the War being more about "states rights" than slavery: "States rights to do what?"

Besides issues of race and the Southern legacy of slavery, Moving Midway illustrates some very fundamental questions about land, property, and history. What meaning does a historic house have without the land it sits on, especially a plantation house? When a new strip mall or housing development is named after the previous occupants of the land it sits on, is this a fitting honor or a cruel and tasteless, if unintentional, insult? (The film shows one housing development that was presumably named after the 18th-century slave patriarch of Midway Plantation, Mingo.) Almost all of the broader questions raised by the film are related to the central, specific question at its heart. Namely, is the decision to move Midway right or wrong? Cheshire shows us various points of view on this question, as well as the Fitzcarraldo-like feat that is the actual move, but wisely leaves us free to come to our own conclusions.

If you rent Moving Midway, don't overlook the additional interview segments included as bonus features. The segment with Algia Mae Hinton, the Piedmont blues singer and banjo player who is featured on the soundtrack, performing for the camera while sitting (though definitely not sitting still) in her comfy chair in sweat pants and socks, is several minutes of pure joy.

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