Moving Midway Directed/Written by: Godfrey Cheshire Cast: Charles Hinton, Elizabeth Silver Cheshire, Al Hinton, Dena Williams Silver Running Time: 1 hr 38 min Rating: Unrated
Plot: New York filmmaker and critic Godfrey Cheshire juxtaposes the enduring myth and romance of the antebellum Southern plantation against his brother’s attempts to physically move the actual house, Midway, to a less urban location.
Who’s It For? Civil War buffs and anyone who feels connected to the Southern identity.
Expectations: I always expect to enjoy documentaries.
Cast: The people in the film are like people you've had a brief introduction to at a picnic. They are likable, but you forget their names immediately afterward and you spend the rest of the afternoon referring to them as "whathisname over there...no, the guy eating the pickle." Further convoluting the problem is that some of the good-natured, white noise characters go by two or three names. In Moving Midway, there are two exceptions:
Al Hinton: Al Hinton is a black descendant of the Midway plantation slaves and white slaveowners, and he is indisputably one of the best parts of the documentary. Hinton provides the most insight into African American experience and the idea of Southern identity. The other characters tell pithy historical and personal anecdotes, whereas Hinton deconstructs his own experience and American history so clearly and so distinctly, it's a shame he wasn't the driving force behind the film. Score: 8
Elizabeth Silver Cheshire, "Sis": Sis is the Southern belle matriarch of the family and she's absolutely wonderful. She is dainty and proper and truly, pivotally Southern. Listening to the little old lady talk about how the "yankees" keep moving in and building strip malls ("Although, I'm sure some of them are nice people") was wonderfully alien. Score: 7
Talking: The storytelling in Moving Midway is the most enjoyable part of the documentary, especially when the family members talk about the formidable Miss Mary--"Mimi". As for the dialogue, it’s normal and natural, which is what it should be in a documentary. The narration is well written, but Cheshire has a way of belting out the words and it borders on jarring. Score: 6
Sights: The film is edited seamlessly and the footage itself is extremely appealing. There is something almost hypnotic about informative narration and anecdotes combined with old movies, paintings, and photographs. Score: 8
Sounds: The score helps the flow of the documentary without really standing out, which is probably its own minor victory. The music doesn’t distract or detract. Score: 6
Warning: I need to make it really clear that I don’t belong to the specific group who will feel connected to this documentary. I do not understand what it is like to perceive things through a “Southern identity,” which is an important theme in the film—for both black people and white people; nor do I view plantation romantic notions or the Civil War with anything more than tepid interest. There is a very good chance that someone with a different background and life experience would enjoy this movie more.
That being said…
Documentaries that tap into universal human themes (pain, love, loss) are extremely engaging, because they are so accessible for everyone. Moving Midway does not fall into this category. The film is quaint and interesting and ultimately well put together, but it’s made for such a specific demographic, it will end up being more peripheral for a lot of people.
It’s a little like digging up someone else’s time capsule—you’re curious about it, but it’s a sterile, ephemeral curiosity. If it’s your time capsule, it means everything in the world to you; to anyone else, it’s mildly and only momentarily interesting.
It feels a little disrespectful to be at all dismissive of a documentary that explores, however lightly, the issues of race and slavery, but Moving Midway does not really spend a lot of time on the gruesome reality of the Southern good ol’ days. It isn’t due to any timidity on the filmmaker’s part, but more the result of the filmmaker’s focus—Cheshire is interested in the myth of the Plantation and the history of Midway. There are some dialogues between the white ancestors of the slaveholders and a black ancestor of those same slaveholders, but it’s burdened by discomfort and excruciating myopia. The film takes such an unemotional approach to the history of plantations, the result is the viewer is left feeling strangely disembodied from the heart of the work.
At the same time, the documentary is well done. It also manages to stay appealing enough to keep from wandering out of “charming” and into “painfully dull,” since, at its core, it’s a documentary about moving a house. That’s just slightly more exciting than a documentary about working at a grocery store or going to the library.
Final Score: 7/10