Race Bleeds From Election Onto Big Screen

With race looming over the 2008 presidential election, it's no surprise that it is also the focus of three new documentaries.

Although the filmmakers behind the Hurricane Katrina documentary "Trouble the Water" set out to examine how race played a role in one of the country's biggest disasters, the directors of "The Order of Myths" and "Moving Midway" say race emerged as a major theme while they were filming. All three directors look at race through the prism of three Southern cities but say the issues resonate throughout America.

"I think race is the great unspoken in our country," said "Myths" director Margaret Brown. "And the movie is a way to start a conversation. It's an opening."

Brown originally planned to make a narrative film about American Mardi Gras, which originated in her hometown of Mobile, Ala., 15 years before New Orleans became a city. But as she began researching the film, Brown realized she had a better documentary.

Brown's documentary, which opened in Los Angeles last week and New York last month, explores the hallowed traditions and elusive forces that have kept Mobile's Mardi Gras celebrations divided along color lines -- complete with separate carnivals, balls and kings and queens -- since its inception.

But, while filming, she discovered a connection between the white and black carnival queens. One of the black queen's ancestors was on the last slave ship brought to the United States by the white queen's ancestors.

"The cinematographer and I looked at each other and said, 'We have a film,'" said Brown, who is white.

Realizing how much race would be a focus, Brown began to worry about how the people in Mobile would respond to her film. Two weeks ago, it was screened in her hometown before a sold-out integrated crowd of 1,800. Some older blacks in the audience had not set foot in the city's art deco theater since it was integrated in 1967.

The film received a standing ovation and, every day since the screening, there have been comments about the film in the city's newspaper.

Finding Family

"Moving Midway" director Godfrey Cheshire, a New York-based film critic and writer, also set out to make a personal film about Midway Plantation, his family's ancestral home, outside of Raleigh, N.C.

Cheshire's original focus was the decision by his cousin Charlie to uproot Midway's antebellum buildings from land that their ancestors the Hintons had acquired in 1739 that was being encroached upon by Raleigh urban sprawl. Cheshire wanted to trace the image of the plantation through American popular culture.

But soon it became clear that race was going to be a major theme -- within his family. Cheshire, who is white, discovered a letter to the editor in The New York Times signed by Robert Hinton, a New York University historian in the Africana Studies program.

"When I got him on the phone, you could have knocked me over with a feather," said Cheshire, who learned that the professor was researching Midway's history because his grandfather had been born a slave on the plantation.

But that was not the biggest surprise. During the filming, Cheshire met 96-year-old Abraham Lincoln Hinton, whose grandfather Ruffin Hinton was the son of a plantation slave cook and the white Charles Lewis Hinton, Cheshire's great-great-great-grandfather. In the film, Cheshire attended a reunion of Ruffin's descendants and connected with his black kinfolk.

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