The idea of the “Obama movie” has quickly become a cliché, but it still seems an appropriate framework through which to consider last year’s remarkable Moving Midway, a documentary that film critic Godfrey Cheshire began making before most Americans even allowed themselves to believe a black man could be elected president. My first viewing was at the premiere at the 2007 Full Frame Film Festival, and I remember being filled with excitement and anxiety. Since teaching the only film class I took in college, Godfrey has remained a good friend and generous mentor to me, and over the two years preceding Midway’s completion, I had the privilege of hearing his stories about the filmmaking process. Naturally, I was worried about what I might say if I ended up being less than thrilled with the results. Halfway in, though, I heaved a sigh of relief, feeling something not unlike what I would later experience watching Obama’s great “race” speech. I went home that day and wrote Godfrey an email, telling him: “I really can’t think of another movie that has gone as far as yours in reconciling the love for Southern culture and family history with the sins and tragedies of the past.”
If that sounds a touch bombastic for a film that, on its home-movie surface, seems to be making no big claims for itself, it’s still a remark I plan on sticking by. Taking on two towering American themes—family and race—Midway exists in an echo chamber with behemoths like The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, and it shoulders the unenviable task of saying something lucid and useful above all that sound and fury. How it succeeds is by steering away from the tendency toward epic gestures that characterize images of the Southern past, and relocating myth and memory on an intimate, human-to-human scale. We are brought into Midway as if we were neighbors being told ghost stories in the living room. The film’s modest visual surface (in contrast to the Hollywood grandeur on display in the clips) only enhances its approachability, and disguises the deftness with which it juggles fragments of American history, film history, contemporary issues of suburban sprawl, and a beautiful sense of character development.
Midway began as an attempt to document for posterity the relocation of Cheshire’s ancestral plantation house to escape the noise of nearby highways and the encroachment of yet another strip mall. In the process, Cheshire brought onscreen a host of charismatic figures: his mother and cousins; New York University professor Robert Hinton, whose ancestors were slaves at the Midway Plantation; and an African-American branch of the family that Cheshire had not known existed. This great example of cinema as uniter and community builder can be appreciated as one more step forward for independent Southern cinema, which has recently given us such varied gems as Junebug, Loggerheads, and The Order of Myths. More specifically, the film inserts itself into a category of first-person, North Carolinian documentary exemplified by the work of Ross McElwee, whose films (including Sherman’s March and the extraordinary Time Indefinite) ushered in a new chapter in the representation of the South onscreen. An artist uncommonly sensitive to the rhythms of Southern life, McElwee’s engagement with his surroundings is comic, personal, and at times quietly devastating. In the years since his debut, many of the most penetrating portraits of the South have emerged out of the diaristic, conversational style he came to perfect. Filmmakers such as Macky Alston (Family Name) and Tim Kirkman (Dear Jesse) have expanded upon his example by directly addressing the region’s history of oppression, and Midway belongs in this small but rich tradition, one which seems to have built itself in response to (and, perhaps, in hopes of bringing to life) the long-unmet promise of a New South.
One of the key points of this redemptive “New South” project is the moral imperative for whites to acknowledge that race is very much a part of their own personal and family histories. In the mid-twentieth century, a new mode of self-analysis began to express itself in what literary scholar Fred Hobson has named the “white Southern racial conversion narrative”—a trend that included heartfelt testimonies from writers like Pat Watters and Larry L. King who confessed, lamented, and sought to repent for the sins of white racism. What Cheshire and his peers contribute to the changing tides of American race relations is a swerve away from that previous generation of protest, and a new voice that is rooted in the experience of Southerners who came of age at the height or in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement. Like Obama, these filmmakers were bred in that liminal moment when the notion of racial diversity and equality as a social good was beginning to supplant longstanding prejudices in the Middle American psyche. Midway, in particular, is reflective of a new strain that has emerged in the way we talk about race, one that speaks to a present reality in which the remnants of racism are still visible but reconciliation seems to finally be within reach.
Cheshire’s film avoids the pitfalls of its most obvious precursor, 1997’s Family Name, an otherwise admirable documentary in which North Carolinian director Macky Alston gets stuck on his own fascination with (and nervousness about) the potentiality of black anger. It is a strange thing to applaud Midway for sidestepping the naïveté and sanctimony connoted by that problematic term “white liberal guilt,” but hopefully it serves to demonstrate how rare Cheshire’s level-headed attitude toward his subject is in our contemporary media, and how much the timidity of political correctness has stifled genuine confrontation with racial history. In Midway, the language of navel-gazing and hand-wringing—the spectacle of penance—has been replaced with a more practical outlook for our time: acknowledgment of the past coupled with forward-looking hopefulness.
Even in the face of some uncomfortable dialogue between its black and white cast members, Midway maintains the geniality and good humor that have long been hallmarks (or clichés) of Southern culture. Fittingly for the Obama era, Cheshire as our tour guide remains a cool cucumber, most remarkably when he refuses to feign shock at his cousin referring affectionately to “the niggers,” and his mother telling Dr. Hinton that the Civil War was not about slavery but about states’ rights. To further sensationalize these button-pushing, gasp-inducing moments would only lead to dead ends (since Cheshire can no more “disown” his family than Obama could Reverend Wright), and result in a certain dishonesty about how deeply ingrained these sentiments have historically been in the milieu that the film depicts.
Instead of scolding his subjects, absolving their ignorance, or wasting our time lecturing us about what should already be self-evident, Cheshire achieves something much more difficult: bringing a diversity of voices into the same space—right and wrong, older and younger, black and white—and envisioning a separate peace that can be attained beyond all the crippling mythologies. In some of its best moments, Midway foregrounds the tensions between Cheshire and Dr. Hinton’s intensely personal but often divergent interpretations of the plantation’s significance. In a decade when the likes of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have set the terms of popular documentary filmmaking, one can’t help but feel refreshed by a director-narrator who allows himself to become a part of the background, and is more interested in capturing a social landscape than in turning himself into a movie star or mouthpiece.
It’s a mark of how impeccably modulated the film is that it never oversells its kumbaya conclusion, when Cheshire’s black relatives come to visit the relocated plantation. Cheshire knows that the pain and anguish of the past must be transcended, but he’s smart enough to know that our coming to terms with the nation’s complex history will remain a challenging and ever-renewing process well into the future. As heartwarming as it is to see both sides of his family laughing together, one need only turn to recent documentaries made by black filmmakers—for example, Marco Williams’ Banished and Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke, both from 2006—to understand how not post-racial we are. But alongside these powerful works that reassert the necessity of documentary’s protest tradition, Midway serves not only as an emblem of our culture in the process of mending itself, but also an active participant in that mending.
Andrew Chan is a poet and film critic currently studying at New York University (NYU). He is the creator of the blog Movie Love.