Darkest Hour stands apart from more routine historical dramas.
In ambling around the Virginia Theater I’ve asked many Ebertfest attendees a simple question: “What has been your favorite movie thus far?” In return, most folks have delivered a simple response: “Moving Midway.” The documentary, directed by critic/filmmaker Godfrey Cheshire, is a fascinating examination into a Southern family’s rich and sordid history. After the premiere of his directorial debut in Champaign, Cheshire sat down with me to have a telling conversation about his work, moving away from home, and more.
Are you and your family still talking after this?
Godfrey Cheshire: I’m actually talking to most of my family, but not all of my family are talking to me. So that’s where it stands.
What did they think of the film?
I haven’t heard what they thought because they stopped talking to me. The ones that stopped talking to me stopped talking to me before they told me what they thought about the movie. It’s all kind of murky.
So everyone who appeared in the film, they discontinued their relationship with you?
No, just a couple.
“Just a couple.” But not your main cousin, whose idea it was to move.
No, he and I still are on very good terms and I go out there frequently when I’m in Raleigh. And I’m also in touch with some of the black cousins I’ve discovered, and also Robert Hinton, who was my main collaborator in making the movie.
And what about your mother?
She’s going strong.
What’d she think of the film?
I think she liked it and I think she got a lot of attention, she had so many people telling her that she was the star and that she stole the show and she kept hearing that, and people really like her part of the movie. I think she would have loved to get an invitation to come to EbertFest, actually. [laughs] She would have stolen the show from me, that’s for sure.
Everyone’s been coming up to you here.
I’ve had more of that at this festival than I ever have.
Why do you think that is?
I think that this audience is a very congenial audience because I think that a lot of them are older. They’re not specialists, or academics, they seem to have a very open sense of possibility in terms of film and open to all sorts of film. My film was made to be very accessible, it was not made to be a film for intellectuals. As a matter of fact, I wanted it to be as broad as possible, especially to people who would be concerned about the issues of the film having to do with the South and history, but also family and heritage and what you do with the artifacts of the past that are passed down to you. And what’s going on in terms of culture and how we deal with architecture and things that are left to us and landscapes. All of that is of concern to people across the country. I mean, some of it is specific to the South, and has a certain resonance with Southerners, but I think that the basic issues are universal issues.
Did you ever contemplate what the critical response would be? As a film critic, naturally you have a lot of film critic friends.
You know, the one thing I learned was that I don’t think any filmmaker really knows what kind of response they’re going to get until it’s out there in front of an audience. And that was the same with critics. I thought that maybe critics would respond to this, that was definitely on my mind. I was making it as a critic, and I was thinking about critics and critical reactions. One of the first shows it got on the festival circuit was at the Virginia Film Festival. And David Edelstein, who I was not friendly with at that point, stood up and just made this great little speech during the Q&A period and gave it lavish praise, and I was just taken aback at that. I didn’t know it would draw that kind of reaction from a critic I really respect and yet wasn’t close to. Some of my friends felt sure I would get good reactions from them. Actually Owen Gleiberman, who I’m really good friends with, made a suggestion that led me to the way I opened the film. He said, “You should have a kind of fanfare of images having to do with plantations.” And I thought of that expression “fanfare” and I thought that was a really good idea, so I have all these things. But another thing that happened later was A.O. Scott reviewed it for its appearance at New Directors, and he gave it a very, very positive review. And I talked to him and he said, “Yeah, I was so relieved it was good!” I had that reaction from other critics, because when you’re a critic and you have a friend that makes a movie you really hope that you can come out and say, “I like that”, rather than skulking away from them at a screening.
There were some uncomfortable sequences in the film. When you were in the moment, do you remember any of them? Did you think, “Wow, there’s a lot of history and tension running up against each other now”?
Yeah, I think the scene that springs to mind most when you say that is the scene between me and Robert Hinton when we’re standing there in front of the plantation house, when it’s sitting there propped up.
Right, and he’s saying he’s glad the house is being moved.
But you know one thing about that scene that I do talk about sometimes in Q and A’s that is not apparent is that you have a scene with me being sort of really stricken by the cutting down of the trees. Robert wasn’t there at the time that the trees were cut down. He arrived the next day. And I was still in a kind of sense of emotional state because of that and he wasn’t aware of that at all, really. I have a feeling that if he had been there for the cutting down of the trees, that conversation would not have happened as it did. So we were in sort of two different spaces emotionally. But I do think it registers a certain thing of a difference of opinion – he’s seeing it from the black angle, I’m seeing it from the white angle.
The audience seemed a bit taken aback by the conversation on why the Civil War happened.
Oh, it’s about my mother talking about states’ rights. Well, that’s the traditional southern view saying that the Civil War was not just about slavery, it was about the whole constellation of issues.
But states’ rights to have slavery. That was the main priority.
Right, but there were a lot of sort of contentious issues between the North and the South, there’s no question about that, and yet at the same time, the Civil War would have never happened if the most serious of those things hadn’t involved slavery. If you took slavery out of the picture, there would have never been a Civil War. So, both sides have some arguments to make. People in the south are versed in this, that are sort of southern patriots and think that the south was justified in seeking its independence, and also they equate it with the colonies wanting out of the British Empire. You know, they can make pretty articulate defenses, not that I agree with those, but there are arguments that are out there and that separate people today even. In same way that they did at the time of the Civil War. So I was glad that that exchange was there to show that those attitudes are still out there and still exist.
You were someone who emigrated up north, to New York. Going back home now, do you still align yourself with your family?
It’s definitely a factor in this film, because I often talk about this film as being made from a Southern point of view. Because I still identify as a southerner in a lot of ways, and yet the truth of it is that I’ve been in New York for over 20 years. I’m a Born Again-New Yorker, that’s what I call myself. And a lot of my attitudes have evolved due to that. I mean, a lot of attitudes I had that I have now I had before I left the South, and I still prefer living in New York to living in the South. I have more affinities there, and yet I am very sympathetic to and interested in the South, so I go back. And when I go back I find that I still feel a kind of a distance from a lot of southerners. Their attitudes are very different.
And does your family feel that distance as well?
I think that they do, although we don’t really talk about it so much.
Well, it would have to be in terms of a specific issue. Nobody would sit down and say, “Let’s talk about how your attitudes are different from ours.” If a certain issue that’s out there in the culture, that might come up. I mean, “You see it differently because you’re living in New York. If you were living here, you might think differently.”
Your film makes the argument for both sides.
Well the film tries to do that, it tries to show different perspectives on all of this. And so that you hopefully understand the different peoples’ perspectives and how – I didn’t want to present anything in this like, “Well this group of people is right, of course, and these people are wrong.” I wanted to have the spectrum of arguments and opinions and feelings out there that people could relate to and try to understand even if they don’t share some of those.
Have you struggled with this personally?
I don’t know that I could say that I ever struggled with it. Sort of my feelings and my attitudes evolved from the time that I was really young. I mean I think a big change of mind and heart came for me during the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War. I went much to the left, whereas when I was younger, I was consciously a young conservative. And so I evolved due to those issues. And I evolved in my view of the south. But my view of the South has always been filled with ambivalence. I definitely I love a lot about it, but there a lot of things I don’t like about it and that I think really are reprehensible and need changing and I want to see change. But I come at it from the perspective of identifying with it and being very sympathetic to it at the outset.
I’m curious about the relationships that start this. The cross pollination, as it were. Did you think about diving into origin of the two of them and how that came to be?
You mean the two that had the mixed race child?
We don’t know anything more than what I put in the film. A friend of mine, who actually happens to be an Arab, saw an early cut of the film before we had information in there that my great great great grandfather was a widower at the time. And he asked me that, he asked, “Was she married at the time?” And I said, “No, he was a widower.” He said, “That’s important, you should put that in there. So I have put in there virtually everything we know. We know that the woman was – well, we didn’t put in there that we know she had other children, I don’t know if that’s a big factor. She had a husband at a certain point, I don’t know when this relationship happened. And she was a cook, and as far as we know, she remained at the plantation. And the story that the black side of the family tells about him riding on the horse with his father as his father oversaw the plantation, that’s something that comes from them. In fact, knowing all about this mixed race child, or ancestor, that I have all comes from them, and I talk in the film about how these stories that the family tells can be used for forgetting and covering things up. On the white side, it was the case, and on the black side they preserve this memory like it’s still there. There’s not a whole lot of information. I would love it if we could dig back and find some archive, some letters that would talk more about this. We do know, again, according to their side of the family, the black side of the family, my great, great grandfather, the owner of the plantation, David Hinton, who the plantation was built for and who was there during and after the Civil War, brought supplies to Ruffin, his black-half-brother after the Civil War. And we assume that since Ruffin had this farm, which you see in the film, that was near one of the Hinton plantations, that they probably gave him the land. That would stand to reason. I don’t know that much more about his life other than he had, what was it? How many children did he have? Like 22 children by two wives. That’s an active life!
The article Robert discussed in the Q&A sounds intriguing.
It does sound interesting. I’m very curious, because, you know, when we finished the film, Robert wanted to do more research and write something. I don’t know if he was talking ultimately about a book or whatever, but he used the title “Mingo Creek” to begin with. And I think that he’s continued to work on that, and it sounded like that yesterday he has this thing he’s writing that he’s almost finished with. But I haven’t been in touch with Robert on a regular basis for a couple of years, so I haven’t talked about much what’s in there. Mingo Creek actually is a creek named for the slave that we had, the very first slave in the 1700s. And it’s been a part of our family lore ever since. They named a creek after him, I think, very early on. And not there’s just this development out there in that area of condominiums.
Run me through that last scene.
It was kind of a strange thing to stage, because I had to have a scene of the plantation coming back to life after it’s been restored and the family gathering there again, after Charlie had promised earlier in the film before they’d moved the plantation. And since this connection that had been made, and I brought Robert Hinton down there, and then they had found out about Al and Abraham [Hinton], you know, I had put it to Charlie and Dena [Silver], “Can we do the scene and can we have them?” And they were both very, very positive about it. I did it with a little bit of trepidation, just not knowing how it was gonna go.
And was there a lot of staging?
Well, no, basically, my one thought was if I put my mother and Abraham in that house, something is going to happen. Because I knew that they were both such characters in a way, and they had a certain relationship to this history, that if they met each other, there would be some chemistry there. And it turned out it was far beyond what I could have wished for. I didn’t script or arrange any of it, it was all just what happened. I’m sure I’m lucky that everything happened that way, but it depends so much on luck if you’re doing anything like this. Serendipity or divine intervention or whatever, I mean, the fact that I even met Robert Hinton when I did, exactly the perfect time. And the fact that he was the perfect collaborator. Perfect eye, so good on camera. Articulate and warm and funny and smart, that was just like a miracle like when I met Al and Abraham and their kinfolk. That was a miracle. People ask me what kind of advice I’d give to documentary filmmakers, and I just say, “Jump into the wind. See what happens.”
Stop watching movies made by assholes. It'll be OK.
A review of Netflix's new Marvel series, "The Punisher."
One of the best superhero films, in large part because the title character sincerely believes in values larger than a...
The work of the late author, writer and director William Peter Blatty will continue to haunt the dreams of readers an...