Now Playing! ‘The Neutral Ground’ Quells Rebel Yells

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Filmmaker CJ Hunt holds a drawing of New Orleans Robert E. Lee monument in 'The Neutral Ground.' Credit: Paavo Hanninen (Paavo Hanninen)

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.

Right-wing extremists protest the removal of a Confederate monument in 'The Neutral Ground.' (Paavo Hanninen)

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.

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The subtext of The Neutral Ground is the way in which the Black experience—of slavery, of post-Reconstruction, of Jim Crow, of contemporary police violence, of the latent racism championed by the twice-impeached previous president—is continually ignored, denied and/or literally whitewashed. Summer of Soul, Questlove’s dense, intense and essential documentary about the pivotal-yet-underrated Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, hits that note as well.

While vignettes and one-liners stick in a viewer’s memory, factual information is arguably the most valuable part of documentaries like The Neutral Ground. Hunt exposes the roots of the Lost Cause fairy tale as a feel-good sop to the widows and mothers of Confederate casualties (hence the preponderance of monuments in cemeteries) and as a reassertion of white power once federal officials departed after Reconstruction (bluntly expressed by the placement of statues of Jefferson Davis, et al. adjacent to courthouses and other government buildings).

The Robert E. Lee monument removal in New Orleans, a scene from 'The Neutral Ground.' (Paavo Hanninen)

In the course of destroying the monument-defenders’ selective and disingenuous arguments—the type of arguments that have become hallmark of the modern Right—Hunt reveals what makes them so hard to combat. From TV-studio propagandists to hate-fueled foot soldiers, those in support of Confederate symbols have a weasel-like propensity to effortlessly segue from aggrieved victims to mob-backed intimidators.

For those who need a couple seconds to ford the gulf between Southern myths and factual history, Hunt provides Karen Elson’s haunting recording of “Dixie” with the Secret Sisters. Bringing it all back home at the end of the film, New Orleans native Tarriona “Tank” Ball delivers her version of the erstwhile battle hymn.

But before Hunt winds up where he began, he visits Charlottesville during the August 2017 Unite the Right rally where Heather Heyer was killed. The jokes and sight gags have been dwindling for a while, but irreverence gives way to terror in Virginia. There’s nothing funny about 21st-century white supremacists.

With that sequence, Hunt demolishes another beloved fallacy about the Civil War and its various legacies: There is no neutral ground.

‘The Neutral Ground’ airs on ‘POV’ Monday, July 5 at 9:30pm on KQED and streams online through Aug. 4. Details here.