Medium shot: A slender white man, all in black, shoulders slumped, stands alone on the knoll before a neat rectangular cavity. He stands perfectly still, his red hair damp in the brassy heat of late June, the powdery pale earth of eastern Wake County dusting his black shoes. His back expresses a stunned sorrow. Into the frame walks another man, taller, black. He moves slowly through the dust to place his hand on the white man’s shoulder, and they stand together, gazing down, looking into the past.
Boom shot: The hole is not a grave, but a foundation rimmed with crumbled rosy brick.
Pull out to long shot: Glossy magnolias in velvet bloom mock the carnage of ancient oaks in the dust of the knoll.
Pan left: Towed by a giant yellow Paystar 5000, Midway Plantation house moves ever so slowly away from its foundation, toward a planned but uncertain future.
Voice overCharlie Silver: Wry laughter. “Every Southern boy needs a mobile home!”
Audio up: The relentless pulsing roar of the day’s 53,000 cars and trucks passing on U.S. 64.
The white man on the knoll is Godfrey Cheshire III, and the black man is Robert Hinton. They may or may not be kin, but both men are tied to this house and this land by blood and history, and they’ve come to watch as one era passes and another begins.
A short while earlier, Hinton had stood next to Midway’s current owner, Godfrey’s first cousin Charlie Silver, as they smashed champagne bottles on the steel undergirding of the house, christening it for its voyage across the fields. “A lotta people worked real hard to get this house where it used to be,” Charlie says. “Some used their brains, some used their backs … now we are launching this grand old lady into a new era where she can live another 150 years.”
“My family invested a lot in this house,” Robert says. “I want to see this go right.”
Everyone in the Triangle who cares about movies knows the name of Godfrey Cheshire. Ever since he helped found the Spectator magazine in 1978, he has been our educator, arbiter of taste and most passionate explicator of cinema’s complex art form. Because his writing has appeared consistently in the Spectator, and in recent years, the Independent, many people do not realize that he hasn’t actually lived here for 14 years. In 1991, he stepped onto the train in Raleigh with a suitcase and a backpack, on his way to New York City, where he made himself into a nationally and internationally known film critic.
What very few know is that for the last couple of years he’s been writing only for the Independent, curtailing his critical activities in order to do advance work on a new project. Now he’s back home in Raleigh for most of this year, to recreate himself againthis time as the maker of films. He has formed a limited liability company, selling shares to finance a feature-length documentary, Moving Midway, which he is producing along with partners Jay Spain of Raleigh, who is handling all the shooting, and Vincent Farrell in New York.
Godfrey, naturally, is the writer and director. Equally naturally, the film he plans has not one idea, but more than can be crammed into many paragraphs. The film will be “essayistic” and an extension of his film criticism, although it will also include, he believes, a strong dramatic and emotional component, as Midway was “that other place” he went to as a child, the place that was “like the movies became later, the precinct of the imagination.” But for Godfrey, “the weaving together of ideas is the key to the whole thing.” The story of the plantation’s move will form the main thread around which he will build his ideas, much the way the house itself was built around its 6-by-16-by-60-inch main timber, into which all the joists and sills are notched.
That he begins his new role with a family story seems to indicate that the years in New York have not diluted his Southern nature. We have heard about the Southerner’s vaunted sense of place until the phrase has nearly lost its meaning, but the power of that attachment to the land was evident in every face on Midway’s moving day. The house had to movebut what will it become in its new location?
Godfrey’s documentary will ask many questions, and perhaps answer some of them. For the descendants of the 19th-century white Hintons who had it built, will Midway still be what Godfrey’s mama calls “out home” once it sits on a different piece of land, a few miles away? Will it still be a plantationwill it still be Midwayor just a collection of buildings? What is home, anyhow, and what is a plantation, really?
By the time Midway was built, “plantation” meant something very different from what it had 200 or even 100 years earlier. In 1640 the English Crown was “planting” people in its new colony, and their farms, simple or grand were called plantations; by 1740 a planter was distinguished from a farmer in the social hierarchy, and a plantation was far more developed than a subsistence farm. By 1840, a plantation was associated with established wealth and was worked by slave labor. What does it mean today? Can we separate history from the current symbology of the plantation? What does any of this mean for descendants of the black Hintons and other families who did the building? Can an exploration like this help us come to grips with slavery and race?
Last but not least, is the South losing its past?
It is pretty clear we are losing our past, in the physical sense. When Charles Lewis Hinton had Midway built in 1848 for his son, David, on part of the land earlier Hintons had acquired by crown grant in the 1730s, he had the house placed conveniently near the wagon track known as the Tarborough Road, an important link between the town of Raleigh, eight miles to the west, and the towns and river navigation to the east. Midway’s site has been made untenable by new dominant transportation patterns. In its loop around Raleigh, I-540 will cross U.S. 64 about a quarter mile from the spot Midway stood for more than 150 years. The N.C. DOT estimates that the number of daily vehicle trips passing that spot will rise from 53,000 to around 75,000. The new developers hope that many of those vehicles will turn into the planned Shoppes at Midway Plantation. In just a few years, when someone says “Midway Plantation,” the image in the listener’s mind will be not of a simple-lined, dignified white house, but of a strip mall, across from another strip mall, lit not by moon glow and magnolias but by neon and vapor lights.
Godfrey Cheshire’s first cousin, Charlie Silver, to whom the property had come down, and his wife, Dena, sold some of Midway’s land to the developer. Even without 540, the traffic had become unbearable. But they sold only after hatching the plan to move the house and all its outbuildings to a nearby siteanother piece of old Hinton family land they were able to buy. Midway has been torn from its history, but the house is saved, a Wake County Historic Landmark still, though marking a different piece of land. New oaks will be planted, and the future will produce its own history.
But in another sense, with the move of Midway, and the documentary exploration of that move and the host of issues trailing the house down the road, we are regaining some of our past. Robert Hinton, the project historian, is the associate director of Africana Studies at New York University, but he grew up in Raleigh, in Chavis Heights, not far in distance either from Midway or from Godfrey Cheshire’s family home near the Carolina Country Club. He had researched the Hinton family for years and says that his grandfather was born into slavery at Midway in 1860. His family moved into town around 1870, and Hinton had never been to Midway, or known any of the white Hinton descendants, until this past fall, although his ancestors had supplied some of the skills and labor that made Midway an elegant and long-lasting collection of structures.
“I had been struggling with how to begin to deal with slavery in the film,” says Godfrey, “when I happened to open the New York Times Book Review to a letter about a review of a new book on Brown v. Board of Education. The letter was signed by a Robert Hinton.” Soon Godfrey was in Robert’s NYU office, just blocks from his own apartment. The men agree that their meeting was “uncanny.” Robert’s doctoral work at Yale had been on the transition of slave to free labor on Eastern North Carolina farms; he now works on issues of social privilege and how it is linked to gender, class and complexion. Soon he agreed to serve as the documentary’s project historian. “I learned at an early age to deal with ambivalence,” he says. “I think it is important this story be told. I trust Godfrey. But I think he’ll do a better job if I’m involved.”
It is too soon to say whether Godfrey will do as good a job as a filmmaker as he has as a film critic. He’s got great material and a great team of collaborators, and another project in the pipeline pushing things along. He’s got a passel of kinfolksand Robert Hintonto keep him honest. Will he have the nerve to expose his own feelings and thus make his ideas palpate with life? We will see, when the film is completed, in early 2007.
But signs are good. Watching the house move, he says, “really made me aware of the conflict between my head and my heart on this project. My heart still violently reacts against the uprooting of the place that had been there so long.” And even though he agrees with the logic of the move, “watching the house literally pick up and move across the landscape was a dreamlike, magical experiencebut thinking about it being torn away was a very painful experience.” He pauses. “It brought up the question: Is Midway the house or the land? If you lose the land, you lose a kind of psychic anchor that can never be replaced.”
Midway is gone from its land, and the land is lost to asphalt, but a new and potentially more important connection has been madebetween two of the families who built Midway. When asked whether his new relationship with Robert Hinton will last, Godfrey Cheshire replies without hesitation or equivocation: “Oh! Absolutely.”
If smart people like these keep crossing the color line, in another 150 years we may have come to terms with our peculiar past.
Kate Dobbs Ariail, who wrote for the Independent Weekly for 12 years, now covers dance for online publication Classical Voice of North Carolina (www.cvnc.org).