Midway is his cousins’ antebellum North Carolina slave plantation, built in 1848, which now sits at the side of a road that sees 55,000 vehicles a day. His amiable cousin, Charles Hinton Silver, has made the decision to transplant the main house to a site unsullied by modernity, and Cheshire has arrived to document that staggering feat. He loves Midway—he spent happy times under its roof, and carries in his DNA a nostalgia for the bygone era of easy southern living.
But he’s also a New York intellectual who has, he informs us at the outset, devoted himself to scrutinizing myths and the part they play in our lives, even when we’re unaware of their influence. While Midway is being moved, Cheshire ruminates on the role of the plantation in American culture, from the myth of “moonlight and magnolias” to the counter-myth of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the counter-counter-myth of Birth of a Nation (which reinvigorated the Ku Klux Klan) to the most enduring of all antebellum fantasias, the film of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Producer David O. Selznick’s Tara, he reminds us, was a painted backdrop, and its devoted slaves might as well have been painted, too. The movie “transports us back to a lost golden age,” says Cheshire. “Of Hollywood.”
In the course of making Moving Midway, Cheshire encounters a branch of the Hinton family he never knew existed—a line that began when the man who built Midway had a son with the African-American cook. By chance, he meets a descendant of Hinton slaves, Robert Hinton, who teaches in NYU’s Africana Studies Program and grew up in an East Raleigh public housing project. It’s a measure of Cheshire’s openness that Hinton becomes not just subject but a collaborator, his bitterness subdued but palpable. Hinton admits that on some level he wishes Cheshire hadn’t been such a good fellow so he could hate him.
Cheshire doesn’t dwell too much on their (muted) resentment at having no stake in the land their ancestors worked. He wants to end on a note of reconciliation. But I wish he’d explored the alleged discomfort of some of his white cousins with their black kinfolk. I also wish he’d stepped outside America to consider cultures in which serfs were freed and their masters violently disinherited. (Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard would be a useful counterweight to Gone With the Wind.) But these are quibbles: Moving Midway is thrilling. As the plantation begins its journey, composer Ahrin Mishan’s elegiac strings echo its creaking procession, and we’re suddenly inside the house, looking through the windows at the Hinton clan, as if through the eyes of the fabled ghost of longtime matriarch Mimi. It’s a haunting sequence—a moment in which we, like Cheshire, say yes and no at once to this beautiful, terrible legacy.
Alan Ball’s Towelhead is a faithful adaptation of Alicia Erian’s snappy novel about a 13-year-old mixed-race girl, Jasira (Summer Bishil), who finds herself caught between many rocks and even more hard places. Men have started sniffing her up, projecting things on her. Her mother’s boyfriend volunteers to shave her pubic hair—which results in her being shipped off to live in the Houston suburbs with her Lebanese dad (Peter Macdissi), who promptly slaps her when she shows up at the breakfast table in a revealing outfit, refuses to let her use tampons (only pads), then carries on in front of her with his girlfriend. This fellow is a mass of contradictory impulses—forbidding her to date an African-American classmate, Thomas (Eugene Jones), while decrying prejudice against Middle Easterners; loathing Saddam while resenting Bush Sr. (The film is set during the first Gulf War.) Jasira herself is torn in about ten different directions. Thomas turns out to be another fervent pubic-hair shaver. A grown-up neighbor (Aaron Eckhart) shares his porn magazines and she … likes them. Does she like him? When Jasira loses control of her sexuality, it’s with an irreducible mixture of erotic pleasure and victimization.
This is potentially incendiary material for the screen, but Ball (American Beauty, Six Feet Under) cools it down and keeps it at a slight ironic distance, often presenting Jasira as a ripe sexual object. The film is superbly acted (especially by Macdissi, who makes the father a borderline hysteric), but it’s hard to know what to feel except, “How can any girl navigate this oversexualized culture?”
Can I write a review of The Women without mentioning Sex and the City? Oops, too late. Four more gal pals buck one another up while conspicuously consuming, this time in a vehicle based on the 1939 George Cukor film (from Clare Boothe Luce’s play). The original (in which, as here, no men appear) was novel for its day in playing up behind-the-scenes female bitchery. These days, the trend is toward vulnerability, and it’s fascinating trying to separate the thirties material from the mostly maladroit additions. Will you identify with Meg Ryan’s adorably tousled and unbelievably privileged Mary, whose husband is cheating with a hot-tamale perfume spritzer (Eva Mendes)? I doubt it, but Annette Bening has her moments as the women’s-mag editor, brittle but with hurting eyes. There’s a creepy subtext that might be partly intentional: As the women talk of aging and weight and plastic surgery and unfair standards of beauty, we scan the actresses’ faces for signs of work.