In August 2017, Americans clashed in Charlottesville, Va., over the question of whether to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. It was, unofficially speaking, a reenactment of the Civil War that divided this country 150 years earlier, and comedian-cum-filmmaker CJ Hunt was there to witness the standoff.
We all know what Trump said of those on both sides of the issue, but Hunt’s alternately amusing and enraging essay film “The Neutral Ground” goes beyond the surface debates to examine why some Southerners are so attached to their Civil War heroes. The answer, complicated though it may be, is tied up in the pernicious propaganda campaign known as the Lost Cause, which has enabled subsequent generations to rationalize (rather than reconcile/repair) the racism of their not-so-distant past.
“There are no Hitler statues in Germany today,” Rev. Jesse Jackson observed after the confrontation in Charlottesville turned violent. That tragedy followed three months after New Orleans took down its own effigy to the Confederate commander. Lee had towered over the city on a giant pedestal, signifying … what? “Our history,” insist some of the (white) locals advocating for it to remain in place at a 2015 city council meeting, whereas their Black neighbors read the monument — and many others like it around town — as a symbol of oppression. Believe it or not, the words “white supremacy” are proudly chiseled into the base of one obelisk.
“They want these to be publicly visible, and having it adjacent to a courthouse or a state house lets you know who’s in charge here,” history professor Karen L. Cox tells Hunt in one of the film’s informative interviews. Hunt started the project in 2015 when New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu started making rumblings about taking down the city’s Confederate monuments, somewhat clumsily lifting the snarky man-on-the-street bits and irreverent interview style from “The Daily Show” (where Hunt now works as a field producer).
Though Hunt is respectful to Landrieu, Cox and American Civil War Museum CEO Christy Coleman, with more questionable subjects — like Louisiana Sons of Confederate Veterans commander Thomas Taylor — he pulls the trick of filming himself attempting to keep a straight face as he asks borderline-silly questions. He’s well within his rights to do so: There’s a misperception in journalism that fair and balanced reporting means giving equal time to all sides, even if one side has been skewing the facts for decades.
If anything, Hunt’s brand of satire gives Lost Causers too much opportunity to make their case, as what feels like dozens of white people repeat the idea that the Civil War was about states’ rights rather than slavery (he provides ample evidence to refute that), or the howler that slave owners were somehow benevolent masters — mistruths enforced by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, who shaped the textbooks and teaching curricula that now make the statues’ removal all the more contentious.
Hunt puts himself right in the middle of the movie, suiting up for both a degrading Civil War reenactment and an empowering parade organized by artist Dread Scott. While hardly a definitive take on the topic, “The Neutral Ground” plays like a more entertaining version of Clint Smith’s much-publicized new book, “How the Word Is Passed.” The two men visited many of the same sites, including the Whitney Plantation, where Hunt discovers the 1811 Slave Revolt Memorial, a grisly yet impactful monument to an underrepresented uprising. If “all of these [Confederate] statues are headstones to their men” abandoned on the battlefield, as Taylor argues, then surely the South needs more monuments like the Whitney one, honoring the unsung victims of slavery as well.
Named for the grassy medians throughout New Orleans intended for everyone’s use, “The Neutral Ground” neatly balances wry bemusement with a more sobering history of Louisiana and the South than many locals get in school. While it’s clear that Hunt was still honing his comedic voice as he shot the film, his self-deprecating style masks just how sophisticated the film’s argument is. Hunt does the research and reveals how slavery was the reason that Southern states seceded, later demonstrating how the push for Confederate memorialization spiked anytime Black people demanded freedom, all of which reinforces his thesis that the monuments served as a “reminder that the Confederacy still lives.”
The South may have lost the Civil War, but under the wobbly project of Reconstruction, ex-Confederacy leaders and their kin were allowed to make the rules, leading to Jim Crow laws and community-sanctioned lynching. In one especially effective moment, editor (and co-writer) Jane Geisler dissolves from a white crowd gathered to witness a public hanging to a ceremony at the Lee memorial in Richmond, Va. — not the same location but in many ways, manifestations of the same agenda to remind free Black people of their place in a still-lopsided society.
“The Neutral Ground” — which opens in theaters July 2, before kicking off PBS’ latest season of “POV” — seems to have taken forever to reach the screen, considering how long Hunt’s been working on it. The pandemic was no doubt a factor, and the delay (in which the Black Lives Matter movement brought the monument debate into the mainstream) simply amplifies the film’s relevance.
In one scene, Hunt addresses New Orleans’ Battle of Liberty Place Monument, honoring an insurrection wherein the White League (exactly what it sounds like) refused to accept the results of the 1972 gubernatorial election, stormed the city and occupied several government buildings. The resulting monolith is the equivalent of erecting a statue on the National Mall commemorating that Viking dude who raided the Capitol last January.
For a while, it looked as if Landrieu would not succeed in removing New Orleans’ Confederate monuments, though “The Neutral Ground” spans enough time to be able to witness that victory come to pass. There remain plenty (perhaps even the majority) of people who wonder when this reckoning will end, fearing that activists will dynamite the faces of slaveholding ex-presidents off Mount Rushmore. What those who stonewall the removal of white supremacist statues don’t realize is that progressives aren’t fighting to erase history; they’re fighting to remove the obstacles to a more complete representation of what happened.