Noted historian Carter G. Woodson is well-known for his seminal classic “The Miseducation of The Negro,” where among other things, he discusses how Blacks were educated in such a way as to teach them to stay in “their place.” “The Neutral Ground,” a new documentary by middle school teacher, TV writer, and comedian CJ Hunt, shows us that many whites are also miseducated, keeping them in their place as maintainers of white supremacy.
An official selection at the recent Tribeca Film Festival, “The Neutral Ground” premieres Monday July 5, 2021 on PBS at 9:30 p.m. ET and at pov.org. It will also stream for free at pov.org until Aug. 4, 2021.
Hunt came to make “The Neutral Ground” after once again, Black death as spectacle, catalyzed action for change in America. It was late 2015 and homicidal white supremacist Dylan Roof’s mass murder of nine Black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina fueled a fierce resurgence of calls for the removal of Confederate monuments in many cities in the South, including New Orleans where Hunt lives.
However, there were just as many forceful calls for keeping the monuments by an overwhelming number of whites, the debates mostly playing out in street protests and council meetings. In fact, although the New Orleans City Council in 2015 declared four of the monuments should come down, resistance was so fierce, it wasn’t until 2017 that most of them did.
Believing what was happening in his midst warranted documenting, Hunt began filming, talking to citizens and taking the pulse of the city. His mission evolved into not just documenting but investigating the reasoning and motivations behind the arguments monument supporters gave for preserving them.
We get to know Hunt intimately. There are clips of some of his stand-up routines, clips of him in the classroom. He chats amiably with the viewer as he drives. He and his father, around the kitchen table, talk about his fitful coming to terms with his Black identity (he is part Filipino) growing up in a predominantly white environment. Dad shows viewers a photo of Hunt as a teen with platinum blonde hair.
Unfolding along two arcs, the film takes viewers go along with Hunt as he travels through current day New Orleans, Charlottesville, VA and Richmond, VA. Hunt also looks back into history via use of a bevy of images of archival photos and documents.
Serious though the subject may be, Hunt approaches a significant portion of the film with humor. Much of it plays out as he describes it, like a late-night talk show with tongue-in-cheek “man-on-the-street” bits such as when he asks one woman her opinion on ending the conflict by just “shrinking the monuments.” Of the monument featuring PGT Beauregard, a Confederate who fired the first shots to start the Civil War, he asks someone else if it would help if they just took the likeness of Beauregard off the horse and kept the horse.
Even the serious sequences sometimes end up being comical. On a jaunt hanging out with a member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans and participating in a Civil War battle reenactment, Hunt meets “Butterbean,” a white man who sputters that the Civil War was caused by “That b*tch Harriet Beecher Stowe” writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and overstating the cruelty of slavery. Butterbean dismisses the possibility that people opposed slavery because it was inhuman and Black people and others with a conscience, wanted to abolish it. As strong as the urge is to mockingly brush these men off, this sequence gets to the heart of the film. Their beliefs undergird their commitment to maintaining the structure of white supremacy including cultural symbols such as the monuments.
Hunt spends plenty of time with historians such as Christ Coleman, head of the Civil War Museum in Richmond, VA and Ashley Rogers, executive director of the Louisiana’s Whitney Plantation Museum, laying out from where these beliefs sprung; mainly from elite southern white women, many members of the Daughters of the Confederacy (DOC) who created the Lost Cause myth after the Civil War. It posits that the Civil War was not about keeping slaves, but about defending states’ rights, that slaveholders were largely benevolent, and that southern society was genteel and idyllic. The DOC had so much power that they determined the watered-down depiction of slavery in textbooks all the way into the 1970s.
Hunt then refutes each of these positions systematically, literally illustrating why that could not possibly be anywhere near the truth. He also shows how white supremacy was native to the “north” as well, which sustained it via media through the books and films that retold those lies ad nauseum. Ultimately, it’s plain that whites have historically been fed a whitewashed version of the history of race in the U.S.
Still, it is clear that some who parrot the arguments of the Lost Cause myth are being disingenuous. There is enough information out there to make clear that slavery was the reason for the Civil War, and that the monuments were symbols of white supremacy. One graphic in “The Neutral Ground” highlights text on one of the monuments slated for removal. It states in part, “The election of 1876 recognized white supremacy in the south…” It doesn’t get any more explicit than that. “The Neutral Ground,” definitely demonstrates that when it comes to Confederate statuary, there is nothing to debate, there never was.