Someone said that a writer gets to a point in his life where he stops writing about the great things that people do and starts doing the great things that people write about.
And so, around the turn of this century, Godfrey Cheshire began to contemplate taking part in the very thing he's devoted many a written word to: the movies.
The former Raleigh resident and New York-based film critic (he writes reviews for the Durham-based Independent Weekly) decided that, after spending most of the '90s churning out reviews for the alt-weekly New York Press, making a film of his own was the next logical step.
“I was really, really happy being a film critic, up until the time that I sort of felt like I'd done what I wanted to do in New York,” says Cheshire, the director of “Moving Midway.” “And, I then thought, yes, filmmaking makes sense in a lot of ways.”
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He says it also took a national tragedy to make him re-evaluate his life. Sept. 11, “I think, prompted a lot of people to reflect on their lives,” he says.
He didn't have to go too far to find a story worth capturing on film. Shortly after Christmas 2002, his cousin, Charlie Hinton Silver, inherited and lived in the Midway plantation in Raleigh, where Cheshire and his family went for weekend getaways, and was planning to literally move it away from the ever-growing, big-city hustle-and-bustle.
“I'd actually long thought that the plantation was a great subject for a movie,” he says. “But, when he told me he was going to move it, then I thought, OK, it's now or never.”
What followed next was four years of Cheshire filming Silver as he rounded up family and workers in practically getting his home off the ground. Cheshire says it took seven camera crews, working in various film formats (16 mm, 35 mm, HD), to film the entire experience. He, along with Raleigh producer/cinematographer Jay Spain, even snagged a helicopter for some aerial shots.
“I felt like I was directing ‘Apocalypse Now' as the helicopter was swirling overhead,” he says.
Working on a budget supplied by investors in the Triangle, Cheshire not only filmed the big move but also managed to deconstruct the plantation myth in pop culture, as well as get in touch with distant relatives – who also happened to be descendants from slaves – he didn't know he had.
One of those relatives, African American studies professor Robert Hinton of New York University, served as chief historian and offered a contrasting perspective to the romanticism and nostalgia several family members on Cheshire's side express during “Midway.” But Hinton understands that these people have a heavy history to come to terms with.
"I mean, their ancestors dropped this thing in their lap, of slavery and all these black folks who were descended from their slaves,” says Hinton. “And so, one of the things you see going on in the film that's sort of an undercurrent is each of them is trying to find his own way of dealing with that legacy. And Godfrey's way of dealing with the legacy is to make the film.”
Cheshire has screened the movie for different audiences across the country. “It's really fascinating, because it stimulates so many opinions and thoughts. And those vary from place to place, and from audience to audience.
“Out West, they look at this like this is from another planet, you know. Whereas in the North, they're very engaged with this history in a way, but differently from people in the South. So, you get all these different points of view."
Don't expect Cheshire to quit his day job now that he's made a film. (A film that's gotten raves from his East Coast colleagues, by the way.) He was writing reviews for the Indy while making this film, and he can't see himself stopping anytime soon.
“I could see going on and having a career primarily as a filmmaker, and yet, never giving up film criticism,” he says, citing that film criticism is “in his blood at this point. I just like to keep my hand in, because I really do enjoy it.”