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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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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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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

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