The documentary Moving Midway begins with musings on the southern plantation house as a sort of American national emblem, an almost mythical repository of all sorts of socio-historical, political and economic echoes across the ages, and one of the most potent icons of popular culture as a badge both of pride and of shame.
New York film critic Godfrey Cheshire returned to his family’s ancestral home in North Carolina in 2004 to discover that his cousin Charlie was planning to move. Not just himself and family, but the whole 18th-century plantation house complete with outbuildings. The beautiful mansion, named Midway, was threatened by the encroachments of urban development – freeways, strip malls, housing estates, Target – and so the crazy plan was hatched to uproot the whole lot and trundle it a few miles down the road to a new location.
One certainly has sympathy with the family. The house looks like an anomalous relic, first seen with the highway almost on top of it, cars rushing past. As one member puts it, the decision is not a happy one, but seems the lesser of two evils. The whole process prompts a great deal of self-reflection on the part of the family (the most amusing of whom is the grandmother, muttering about Yankees under her breath), concerning questions of history and identity. Once moved, is it still the same house? Will the various ghosts travel with it and what do they think about the whole thing? What of the fact that the slaves’ cemetery must remain where it is? One family member looks forward to the whole area being blacktopped, the land his ancestors worked, a sealing of history.
For the history of this white southern family is intimately tied to a black history. One of their progenitors was instrumental in the 1607 establishment of Jamestown and its notorious exploitation of black labour. Great-grandmother Mimi was the guardian of family history, a matriachal figure from Cheshire’s childhood, and the teller of numerous family stories. But as Cheshire points out, stories not only help people remember; they also help people forget. During the course of the whole moving operation it comes to light that a great grandfather’s liaison with a slave produced a whole, previously unknown black side of the family (it turns out there are also Jewish and Mexican ancestors). This unexpected revelation leads to a family reunion of sorts, which in some ways is quite touching, but concurrent with the actual making of the documentary, the feelings and implications brought to the surface remain inchoate without hindsight: the one who welcomes the coming asphalt is remembering the work his ancestors did as slaves; Cheshire can hardly (be expected to) relate. Instead, the racial component of the film is confined mainly to illustration through film clips, generously used and focusing specifically on Birth of a Nation, with its alternate title The Klansman; Gone With The Wind with its set-built mansion in the absence of any suitable, real examples; and the ground-breaking TV mini-series Roots, treating of the African slaves’ experience in the New World and issues of family and American identity.
These byways are used more for illustrative purposes and the provoking of thought rather than tools of enquiry. Where the documentary is most effective is in its depiction of the actual moving operation. It’s an immense and bittersweet undertaking. The contractors marvel at the sturdiness of the old buildings – far exceeding modern code – as they hack at the foundations to slide huge steel girders beneath the house. Majestic old trees are felled to make room for its removal, and the painstaking journey takes a full two days. But the end result seems worth it – in its new location the house is undeniably different (lighter, with fewer shading boughs), but seems to the desired sense of continuity and preservation of memories. This is about the only conclusion the film allows itself to draw, but with a welcome minimum of the usual meaningless images accompanied by bland music that pad out so many documentaries these days, it remains effective on the two levels of contemplation at least, that of personal family history, and of wider socio-historical context. It is more of an anecdote than a thesis, more suggestive than insightful, but the extraordinary confluence of elements in the subject make it a rich source of food for thought. One depressing area not considered however, is how long will it be before the house must be moved again?
image: First Run Features