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A Film Critic Digs Into His Family’s Slave-Holding Past

A Film Critic Digs Into His Family’s Slave-Holding Past (photo)

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Say it again — there’s a film inside every family, and all you need is the head and heart to find it. (That is, you don’t need to be the cursed Great Neck residents of “Capturing the Friedmans” or “Tarnation”‘s Jonathan Caouette, and in some ways, it’d better for us all if you aren’t.) Film journalist Godfrey Cheshire’s “Moving Midway” (2007) has a deep ditch of historical soil to dig, but it’s not a personal-regional family doc that focuses on dysfunction or tragedy; rather, its position is ironic and aciduously nostalgic. Originally from North Carolina, Cheshire may well be the most universally liked personage in contemporary New York movie critic culture (notoriously a small pond with mean fish; disclosure-wise, he is a friend), and his film comes both bearing an enormous amount of good will and receiving the same. I can’t untie the extra-cinematic humanity from the film’s threads, and there’s something about both Cheshire’s peripatetic friendliness and the film’s unforced congeniality that encourages me not to try.

Foremost, it’s an excavation: the legitimate history of Cheshire’s family runs back to slave-holding days (his great-great aunt, however, decided the bloodline ran back to Charlemagne), and includes an old family plantation, Midway. A relatively new highway and its accompanying suburban sprawl compels Cheshire’s cousin, Charlie, to literally move the sizable manse physically to a more secluded plot, a decision that inspires Cheshire to consider the meaning of the house and its slavery legacy (as well as that legacy’s life in the American consciousness, as Reconstruction pop culture and, later, movies). Then history begins to have its civilized revenge — Cheshire uncovers a post-Civil War interracial coupling that created an entire branch of the family no one knew was there, leading to “one hundred” African-American kin nobody at Midway knew they had, including, most vocally, NYU Africana Studies professor Robert Hinton, whose life and career has hinged on being the direct descendants of slaves.

02172009_MovingMidway_charl.jpgThere’s even a concrete connection to D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” and multiple reports of family ghosts. (One historian points out, fascinatingly, that the Klan uniforms in Griffith’s film were invented for the film, and thereafter provided the template for the revived Klan’s famous ensemble.) Cheshire’s too good a film critic to let his movie slip into didactic political argument, and so there are layers of ambivalence here. In person, Cheshire is plainly moved by his own childhood memories of the house, and by the prospect of it being transplanted, but “Moving Midway,” as a whole, is more temperate, acknowledging but not crowing about the contradiction between accepting the home’s roots as a slavery institution and loving it all the same. (It’s no surprise, for family’s sake, that Cheshire steers clear of saying anything critical of his cousin, whose lavish expenditures and obsession with keeping the house in Reconstruction style suggest exactly the sort of lingering privilege, vanity and self-satisfying conservatism that characterized the rise of the South’s “moonlight and magnolias” vision of itself.) As in last year’s “The Order of Myths,” there’s a sense of the new-millennium South as a place where slavery is now merely a context for explored mutual history, and no longer, finally, a social trauma to be redressed. Even Hinton, as he admits that he’d hoped to hate the descendants of his great-grandfather’s owners, seems to agree.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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