Humor has the capacity to disarm, CJ Hunt discovered in his stints as a middle-school teacher and stand-up comic. It’s part of his toolkit as a producer on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. But are irony, dry wit and self-mockery effective ways of turning a mirror on racists and Confederate sympathizers, and shifting their thinking?
That’s the starting point of The Neutral Ground, Hunt’s informative, entertaining, provocative and sobering contribution to the debate around Civil War monuments. The season opener of PBS’ long-running POV series, The Neutral Ground airs Monday, July 5 at 9:30pm on KQED and streams online through Aug. 4.
The documentary opens with a bevy of impassioned public comments at a 2015 New Orleans city council meeting, culminating with a vote to remove four Confederate statues. Hunt is wryly skeptical of the pro-monument arguments—“This is our history” and “The Civil War was about states’ rights”—and dispenses some good-natured mockery before digging into the archives for documents in which the leading lights of the Confederacy declare the preservation of slavery as their primary objective.
At the same time that Hunt positions The Neutral Ground as both a present-day reconnaissance and a research project, our Black and Filipino guide frames it as a personal journey. But those roots aren’t stereotypically heroic: His father, a Black teacher, reminds Hunt that he had to prod him numerous times growing up before he acknowledged and confronted the reality and legacy of his Black identity.
This straight-talk conversation is designed to cast Hunt as an inquisitive everyman rather than an agenda-driven investigator, though it isn’t likely to fool many viewers. It works on a white-whiskered good ol’ boy whom Hunt accompanies to, and through, a full-dress Civil War battle reenactment—until Hunt presents our Southern man with an invitation to visit the Whitney Plantation, a recently opened Louisiana museum about the history of slavery.