Trust a movie critic to open an autobiographical picture with clips from “Birth of a Nation,” “Gone With the Wind” and “Song of the South.” But N.C. native Godfrey Cheshire isn't making rhetorical flourishes: His documentary, his blood and his profession are linked inextricably to the myths of the Old South.
The title of “Moving Midway” refers to the plantation house outside Raleigh owned by his cousin, Charlie Silver, who decided in 2003 to move it away from the noxious traffic of U.S. 64. Cheshire, a film critic in New York (now writing for The Independent in the Triangle), used the move as an excuse to explore family and social history dating back to the colonial era but concentrating on slave days.
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The film breaks neatly into three parallel story lines. One is about the labor needed to carry Midway – so called because it sat midway among the family's many homes – and its outbuildings to land so rural that silence prevails.
Another is about Cheshire's discovery that a slave-owning white ancestor fathered a son by his black cook, so Cheshire has a passel of distant black cousins he has never met. One of them is Robert Hinton, a genial professor at New York University, who acts as an articulate conscience for Southerners who (like some of Cheshire's white kin) use the n-word casually and believe that slave-owners in general – and their family in particular – treated black chattel in kindly ways.
The third part of the narrative is a capsule history of film culture for the first 50 years of the medium. Cheshire shows how legends of antebellum beauty and gentility lasted well into the last century. He explains how America's need to bury a painful past in flowery sentiments corrupted its view of history; if he breaks no new ground on that score, he provides a quick and entertaining look backward.
It's a personal look, too. He visited Midway most weekends as a boy, getting out of the bustle of Raleigh. We see a photo of him standing next to Midway's mantelpiece, which came from another branch of the family – one befriended by Shelby author Thomas Dixon, best known for his book “The Clansmen.”
That book became “The Birth of a Nation,” the 1915 blockbuster film that helped revive the Ku Klux Klan. (Something I didn't know: The Klan members I saw on TV while growing up in the 1960s took their hats and robes from the ones they saw in D.W. Griffith's movie.)
“Midway” eventually begins to repeat itself, as Cheshire meets more and more black relatives and keeps asking his white kin how they feel about the old place getting a new address. But he always looks at his history and the South's with an intelligent and impartial eye. The result is occasionally entertaining, certainly informative (should you ever want to relocate a home of your own) and, in the end, even a little bit moving.