Film About Moving a Plantation House Unites Descendants of Slaves, Slave Owner

(By Conrad Richard Jordan)
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By Ellen Maguire
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Godfrey Cheshire, a Manhattan film-critic-turned-director, and Robert Hinton, a professor of Africana studies at New York University, bonded immediately when they met 4 1/2 years ago. Both men had grown up in Raleigh, N.C., though with radically different perspectives.

Cheshire, who is white, speaks of wide lawns and country clubs; Hinton, who is black, recalls public housing projects and segregated schools. But both men trace their ancestry to Midway, a onetime tobacco plantation where Cheshire's great-great-grandfather owned Hinton's grandfather, a slave.

"I wish I didn't like Godfrey," says Hinton, 67, in an interview at his Brooklyn apartment. "But I do."

The push and pull of their freighted relationship fuels "Moving Midway," Cheshire's first film, which played at the New Directors/New Films festival in New York last year and was being released on DVD last month.

The documentary was already underway when the pair met. Midway's Greek revival-style plantation house, built in 1848 on land that has remained in one family since 1739, was being relocated a few miles to escape the encroaching sprawl of interstates and super-stores. Cheshire was filming the journey -- with the added ambition of mapping the complex cultural legacies of Southern plantation life.

In a coincidence that Cheshire calls "miraculous," he spotted a letter by Hinton in the New York Times Book Review. Cheshire knew the surname -- it was the same as Midway's original owner, one of Cheshire's forebears. A phone call revealed their shared heritage.

"I knew I had to include the African American experience in the film, but I didn't exactly know how," says Cheshire, 57, whose relatives still use euphemisms such as "our faithful retainers" to describe the family's slaves of bygone years.

Cheshire and Hinton began an intense, ongoing conversation about history and race. As far as they can determine, they are not kin -- a fact they seem to regret -- although, as Hinton notes, "my people were slaves of his people for 150 years, and it's hard to imagine that the line was not crossed at some point."

Hinton, who has a doctorate in history from Yale, joined the documentary's team off-screen as an associate producer and historian, and on-screen as a sharp and sympathetic foil to Cheshire's dispassionate narrator.

The resulting film is a scrupulous mix of memoir, engineering primer and historical analysis. Mostly tough-minded, sometimes funny and occasionally tender, the documentary also parses the ways in which Americans embrace or dodge the specter of slavery. Cheshire's original impulse -- to deconstruct the Southern plantation -- yields a complete re-imagining of his family: With Hinton's help, he eventually discovers a hundred or so African American cousins he never knew he had.

Through archival footage and interviews with Hinton and other scholars, Cheshire begins by tracing the evolution of the Southern plantation from its birth as the cornerstone of the Southern economy to its transformation into a celluloid icon. Myths are debunked: Tara in "Gone With the Wind" was, for the most part, the creation of a scenic painter; the Ku Klux Klan appropriated the white supremacists' costumes from D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" -- not the other way around.

Modern footage then reveals the Southern plantation's legacy of racism within the director's own family. Cheshire's cousin Winston "Winkie" Silver, who grew up at Midway Plantation, casually uses an ugly epithet to describe the African American companions of his childhood, yet insists "they were family."

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