New Directors/New Films: Part Five
By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor
Senator Barack Obama's recent speech on race given in Philadelphia "bluntly confronted the divisions between black and white," reported The New York Times in a front-page story on March 19. The Times called Mr. Obama's stance "a living bridge between whites and blacks still divided by the legacy of slavery, and all that came after it." If ever a movie was in the right place at the right time to contribute to this national dialogue, it is Godfrey Cheshire's knockout documentary, "Moving Midway." It will premiere March 29 at the Walter Reade Theater and March 30 at the Museum of Modern Art, and hopefully will find a distributor to carry it not just to America's cinemas coast to coast, but all the way to the Smithsonian where it can be viewed forever.
Cheshire's film is a diary of the moving of his family's ancestral home, Midway Plantation and its surrounding antebellum buildings, built in the 1740s, in Raleigh, North Carolina. In 2004 the owners of the home, Charles and Dena Hinton, cousins to Cheshire, were looking out on 55,000 cars a day zipping back and forth out front, with a shopping mall about to begin development across the road. Hinton decided to move the house and all buildings intact to a larger, protected tract of land he'd purchased "up the road"--the kind of jaw-dropping cinematic journey we haven't witnessed since Klaus Kinski and company hauled that gigantic riverboat up a mountain in Werner Herzog's "Fitzcarraldo."
But "Moving Midway" has a deeper, more profound story to tell--an unraveling mystery that's even more riveting. Cheshire learns to his surprise from Hinton that the family has a distinct African-American branch, started by their great-great-great-grandfather and a slave. Cheshire's knowledge (and ours) is suddenly widened by his accidental discovery, through a letter he reads in the Times Book Review, of Dr. Robert Hinton, a historian in the Africana Studies program at NYU. Hinton's grandfather was also born a slave at Midway plantation. When Cheshire invites Hinton onboard, "Moving Midway" starts to tell two distinct stories-- a suspenseful road movie of the foot-by-foot move of a gigantic home steel-beamed onto a flatbed truck, as well as a moment-by-moment deconstruction of a family's mixed-race history going back to the Civil War and beyond.
Cheshire is that rarest of writer/producer/directors--he's a film critic who headed up daily reviews for The New York Press through the 90s and served as Chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. You think, imagine, here's a guy whose professional life is saluting and beating up the world's movies, so he'd better get this thing right. And he does. One of Cheshire's lead producers is Vincent Farrell, Head of Production for Robert Greenberg at R/GA Digital, one of the two or three most innovative interactive and digital production houses in the world. His DP, Jay Spain, runs The Communications Group in Raleigh, another frontline commercial production house. His lead editor, Ramsey Fendall, cut "Frozen River," the memorable Opening Night selection of the curators at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art. And the woman whose voice anchors us through much of the historical reveals of "Moving Midway" is Algia Mae Hinton, a 79-year-old Piedmont blues singer thoroughly steeped in the Hinton family history. How good an A-team can you get?
As Midway settles into its new, quiet, wooded surroundings and all the furnishings return to this quietly elegant southern home, the Hinton clan plans a homecoming with a surprise guest. Cheshire and NYU's Dr. Hinton are contacted by another African-American New Yorker, Al Hinton, whose 96-year-old father Abraham clearly recalls his own grandfather--the original mixed-race ancestor whose life started this documentary down its path. All the Hintons and Cheshire share this at the 2007 housewarming. Barack Obama's reaching out for a bridge between races has never been more warmly demonstrated than in Cheshire's welcoming realization that he, Al and Abraham Hinton, and Abraham's mixed-race grandfather all have a common ancestry. Godfrey Cheshire now knows he has nearly 100 African-American cousins. "Moving Midway" may be the most moving 98 minutes you'll spend in a movie theater this year.