We had to transplant our roots in order to preserve them: in 2004, film critic Godfrey Cheshire had a plantation-sized metaphor excavated from its foundation and dropped in his lap when his cousin proposed to move the titular ancestral home to a patch of Raleigh exurbs unblighted by sprawl. (Cheshire’s lacey mother, who'd probably call Jane Jacobs a "yankee", sighs: “It can’t be like it was….”)
Like Ross McElwee with more sociopolitical powerpoint, Cheshire traces his bloodlines from personal archives through Southern history. He has photo albums aplenty, but unlike most recent first-person documentarians doesn’t appear to have been trailed by a film crew for his entire childhood, so instead of home movies he uses The Movies, tacking on an illustrated lecture in Southern mythmaking. It’s at about the moment you start thinking, “but what about…” that Cheshire meets an Africana studies prof descended from Cheshire’s family’s slaves (and, later, a hundred-plus black cousins), bringing him down for a historical counterpoint on the old North Carolina home.
Some brief prickliness about the proceeds of the original land’s sale, plus the epic contracting job that is moving Midway, expose enduring class implications otherwise glossed over. Still, the whole clan tries so hard to be nice; you really want the genteel multicolored family reunion be a hopeful scene of Southern reconciliation, and not just smiling for the camera and insisting “our slaves were treated well.”
Opens September 12 at IFC Center