I gotta hand it to my colleague Godfrey Cheshire -- the man knows how to tell a story, especially when it's his own.
In his debut film, "Moving Midway," the Raleigh-born film critic takes a dip into his past, embraces it and, at the same time, purges himself of it.
Subtitled "A Southern Plantation in Transit," "Midway" is just that, as he captures his cousin Charlie "Pooh" Hinton Silver's mission of relocating his family's plantation home to greener, quieter pastures -- and away from the strip malls, new homes and Bank of America franchises that keep getting built around it.
It's a challenge Cheshire greets with equal parts curiosity, inquisitiveness and giddiness.
Cheshire appears almost enthusiastic in investigating the home's history as well as his family's. He can't get enough of hearing about how the Midway home, built way back in 1848, is haunted. Among the ghosts is his great-great-aunt, Mary Hilliard Hilton (aka Mini), whose apparition has been known to scare the home's cleaning ladies. ("That's a Harry Potter character, almost," one family member describes her.)
But no matter how much he delves into the Southern Gothic swing of things, Cheshire treats everything with straight-faced sincerity.
Ever the critic, he takes time out from his cousin's story to break down the significance of the Antebellum South -- and "the plantation myth" -- in U.S. history. (Yes, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "Birth of a Nation" and "Gone With the Wind" make appearances during these intervals.) Of course, he finds it is a part of American lore that inspires mixed feelings. Some folks greet it with old-timey romanticism. Others greet it with outright disdain.
This latter holds true when Cheshire interviews African-American New York University professor (and distant, distant relative) Robert Hinton about his side of the family. Soon, Hinton becomes integral in assembling the Cheshire-Hinton-Silver family tree, including white, black and even Hispanic members. (Watching Cheshire interact with his black relatives at a family reunion may remind folks of the same journey Durham filmmaker Macky Alston took in the 1997 documentary "Family Name." Cheshire says, yes, he and Alston are related, too.)
With his deadpan yet astute manner, Hinton becomes the movie's most daring, darling asset. Whenever "Midway" begins to get too sweet on the dirty South, he gives it a swift kick in the pants. As many family members remark on how the Hinton ancestors were kind and respectful to their slaves, he reminds them (and the audience) that African-Americans are still sore about the slavery thing. And they're still looking for some kind of restitution.
When Cheshire asks Hinton wouldn't fellow slave descendants want to preserve Midway the same way Charlie Silver is, Hinton tells him: "Only if they end up owning it." (That was one of the many occasions I wrote "I love the black dude!" on my legal pad.)
But alas, Hinton comes to grips with the past just as much as Cheshire and the rest of the clan (OK, that was a wrong choice of words) do.
As Silver oversees the manor's move, and as the family gets used to the South of yesteryear getting streamlined by the South of today, Cheshire is there, using helicopters and crane shots to make this heavy lifting as cinematic -- and metaphorically profound -- as possible.
Much like when Les Blank filmed German filmmaker Werner Herzog nearly going batty in moving that freakin' ship for his movie "Fitzcarraldo," for his legendary documentary "Burden of Dreams," Cheshire covers the move with the same Herculean melancholy.
But "Midway" is more than just the story of a house going from one place to another. Most of all, it's a movie about understanding who you are and where you came from, no matter how much scandalous drama keeps popping up in the bloodline.
Much like the titular place of residence, your family is always gonna be a load. But it's a load you're gonna have to accept taking with you.