When you’re driving down one of Alabama’s main interstates, it’s not hard to see gaudy Confederate flags flying atop a hill, a memorial site, gravesites, or basically, anywhere else. Growing up in the South brings gradual understanding to just how deep the permeation of Dixie is in the culture — “The Dukes of Hazard“ proudly had the flag on the hood of the General Lee car, a symbol for ’70s Southern pride. It never really went away; it was, at the cusp of Lost Cause thinking, an effort to repackage the old South with “Gone with the Wind” antebellum charm, a vision of a civilized, polite utopia that was never as bad as the “Democrats” would have you believe. It reframed slavery as tame and voluntary; it repainted slave masters as kind and supportive. It’s, obviously, a crock of racist, easily debunkable shit, but it sure sounds nice to those who would rather ignore the horrendous, inhuman sins of their ancestors. The American South contains multitudes and can be a wonderful, beautifully diverse place to live, but the stains of yesterday still linger.
The Lost Cause still creeps within every facet of Southern, and in turn, American society — it formed the history books our parents and grandparents read in school, influenced the laws that govern us, bled into the art that defined the dawn of motion pictures and yes, erected a plethora of reactionary Civil War statues that enforced white supremacy and aimed to make Black Americans feel uncomfortable, and certainly not at home, in a post-Civil War/Civil Rights America. What makes “The Neutral Ground,” the documentary debut from “The Daily Show” field producer and comedian CJ Hunt, such a bulldozing experience is just how rigorously, yet calmly it peels back generations of hokey, perverse myth and sets the record straight. It’s a quiet, piercing arrow through what really drives defenses of Confederate monuments and what keeps white supremacy entrenched in various corners of American society: a malevolent, misplaced sense of history.
Hunt makes his living staging political observation and interview in satire; it’s what has made “The Daily Show” such a cornerstone of political comedy. Hunt, a former New Orleans resident, spends a bulk of the documentary in the city, following its efforts to remove four Confederate monuments. The city council voted in 2015 to remove the statues from the city streets, but a legal battle and a struggle to find the proper equipment due to worried contractors push this process all the way into 2017, when they finally come down. Hunt studies the slow progress by framing why the monuments carry such damning weight and why they are rooted in a false sense of past that many have romantically bought into, and on which can’t be convinced otherwise. Hunt takes the “Daily Show” approach at first, providing some inspired bits of comedy as dissections of just how screwed up some people’s thinking is on the issue. He shows empathy by trying to understand opposing perspectives, but never without a very unnerved look of disbelief.
Though, it’s the dilemma of finding satire in such a horrifyingly oppressive way of thinking that begins to permeate the documentary and gives it its urgency. Sometimes, this shit just isn’t funny, as we learned time and time again during the Trump presidency. Questions abounded as to how you could make fun of what was going on when, all along, the real answer was, you just don’t. It’s is funny to see grown men dressed in Civil War gear run around LARPing during a reenactment; it’s not funny to hear those same men pour out to you their misguided thoughts on slavery and scoff at hearing the actual truth as to what slaves went through in a pre-emancipated America. Hunt knows deep down toward the documentary’s end that he’s dealing with issues that transcend satire, and grapples with his own identity as a Black American unearthing things about the past not even he was aware of. The cruel irony of American discovery for Black Americans is that the more you find out, the more you realize how much of your history was taken away from you.
“The Neutral Ground” is a spectacular documentary; concise, poignant, infuriating, edifying, and powerful. Hunt’s own journey into his experiences as a Black American dealing with the making of the documentary is about as striking as how effectively it breaks down the themes at hand. He’s a gifted documentarian and a wise steward of these issues.
The documentary moves toward Charlottesville near its finish, one of the darkest days in recent American history. Hunt joins a photographer friend to see what’s about to happen; they are seen filming and witnessing the University of Virginia tiki torch march that is scarred into so many of our memories. The bravery to document on the ground what was happening is commendable in and of itself, but it underscores why this film is so valuable. It builds a compelling case as to how, still today, the Lost Cause affects, and will continue to affect, how we live and how we collectively view the past. While the sight of Confederate monuments being torn down is a hell of a thing, it’s not just taking down the statues that makes a difference. A more just future depends on a careful, methodical dismantling of false history and restoration of unfettered truth. “The Neutral Ground” captures the importance of that fight as well as anything that’s come out in recent memory. Hunt is a filmmaker to watch. [A]