A week after white supremacist Dylann Roof massacred nine African Americans attending church in Charleston in June 2015, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu stood in his city’s council chamber and put forward a motion to remove four major Confederacy monuments that adorned the streets of one of America’s most majority-Black cities. Following a six-month public consultation period, the council near-unanimously voted to remove the four statues. It would take another 511 days for those monuments to actually come down.
At the time, C.J. Hunt was an aspiring comedian living in New Orleans, making YouTube videos heavily inspired by the likes of Jordan Klepper and Roy Wood, Jr – “the LeBron and Steph Curry of field pieces.” Being on the ground floor of a major cultural flashpoint, where bad-faith conservatists and just plain white supremacists came crawling out of the woodwork in their efforts to obstruct democracy, Hunt did what anybody in his position would have done. “Let me get a mic, let’s go roast these people!”
But the film that’s come out of that ambition, The Neutral Ground, is way more complex than that implies. It’s also about much more than just four monuments. “The statues are a crowbar to open up the wider conversation,” Hunt explains. “It’s about how long white supremacy makes democracy wait.”
What begins as a Daily Show-style local interest piece – with Hunt comedically detailing the history of the monuments in question: Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, and the Battle of Liberty Place obelisk – soon expands into an examination of how deeply America’s racist history remains entrenched within its streets.
“When people think about white privilege, they think about the ability to get pulled over and escape with their life. They don’t think about the privilege to know less.” To that end, one of The Neutral Ground’s edutainment masterstrokes is the recurring ‘ding’ sound effect every time one of these three main lies in defence of the Confederacy is brought up: that it wasn’t about slavery, that it was about states’ rights, and that slaves weren’t treated all that badly.
Hunt credits writer and editor Jane Geisler with the idea of the sound effect, which she jokingly admits to having “stolen” from Errol Morris’s 2010 documentary Tabloid. “It’s Pavlovian repetition,” as Geisler describes. “I want people – when they see someone like Shelby Foote argue ‘the civil war was just a failure to compromise’ – to say to themselves ‘ding!’” adds Hunt. As Take ’Em Down NOLA activist Angela Kinlaw states in the film: “There can be no reconciliation without truth.”
But it’s not just the false narratives of supremacists that Hunt’s film sets out to bust. A pivotal turning point comes when Hunt participates in a civil war re-enactment with Confederate sympathisers, earnestly engaging in a dialogue intended to change their minds. Things seem to be going ok until the Confederates ask Hunt what they could do to see things from his perspective. The suggestion of them visiting The Whitney Plantation Museum – a former Louisiana plantation now commemorating the abuses that occurred during slavery – is emphatically shot down.
“One of our earliest viewers said to me, ‘I felt so heartbroken and disappointed because I thought that he was going to do it.’” Turns out, that wasn’t too far removed from Hunt and Geisler’s own reactions during filming. “I thought that that was gonna be the arc of the movie,” Hunt admits. “But it’s a productive heartbreak. I think we all hunger for stories of the racist whose heart is changing. We love that story; it wins awards. But the story of the Black person who spends years trying to change a racist’s mind and fails miserably? We need to hear more of that, because it’s closer to the truth.”
Hunt’s own father, the man who taught him about the reality of biracial existence in America, puts it best. “It’s like an alcoholic. They have to want to get better. But some people don’t want to get better.”
That becomes clear as the film moves into its terrifying final act, in which Hunt and war photographer Abdul Aziz visit Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally. “As soon as we came back, I just gave the footage to Jane and didn’t look at it until we had a first assembly.”
The footage is harrowing. Armed militia chanting “Whose history? Our history.” A man decked in the uniform of Vanguard America taking off his clothes when chased by counter-protesters as he insists that he’s “not really White Power, [he] just came here for the fun.” Hunt getting pepper-sprayed in the chaos. Even now he “has to sneak out of the theatre when it’s happening”. The trauma is still too fresh.
Much of the film’s epilogue centres around how Hunt’s worldview was shaken by that trauma. He found solace by immersing himself in slavery narratives where Black people can demonstrate agency instead of purely being victimised, as with Dread Scott’s group re-enactment of a runaway slave rebellion. “It took me years to accept the notion that documentary has to reveal something about yourself. I felt a lot of resentment because there are so many white male documentarians who don’t have to reveal a lot about themselves. But, in reality, it was more about just learning to be a filmmaker.”
That additional time in the edit also led to an entirely different ending than initially planned. It was the summer of 2020, and global Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder saw activists seize the initiative by tearing down statues of white supremacists themselves. “We had spent five years making a film about how long white supremacy makes democracy wait to move four objects. All of a sudden, because white violence gets so undeniable, monuments start coming down overnight. We couldn’t even keep track of the amount that were getting pulled down!”
Hunt and Geisler joke “does the movie still work?” as a result of this ending montage, which includes prominent footage of the Edward Colston statue being dumped into the river. “But we wanted to show a window where the world changes. You come into the film when none of us have ever seen a monument get pulled down, and you leave when monuments get pulled down all the time around the world.”
It’s an inspiring development, particularly since it’s not limited to American history. After the New Orleans statues come down, activist Malcolm Suber provides an extensive list of streets, buildings and additional monuments in the New Orleans area that are named after or dedicated to slave owners, white supremacists, advocates of slavery and segregationists. The list is too long to fit on the screen.
Our interview concludes by returning to an earlier discussion about the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford. Despite Oriel College’s public desire to take the statue down, they are yet to do so, instead installing an explanatory plaque stating that it couldn’t owing to “legal and regulatory advice”. Hunt is apoplectic. “Imagine this as an artefact 100 years later. ‘We knew it was wrong, we decided it should move… but the lawyer said it would be hard.’
“We want folks talking about how white supremacy isn’t just the Charlottesville guys. White supremacy is what made removing those statues take 511 days. White supremacy is this line about owing to ‘legal and regulatory advice.’”
The Neutral Ground is now available on Apple TV, Google Play and YouTube. It had its UK premiere at the 65th BFI London Film Festival.