“I was just happy that someone else had to put their ass on the line for me,” said Roy Wood Jr, correspondent for The Daily Show at Comedy Central. “I’m doing it enough for Trevor Noah.”
The someone else was CJ Hunt, a Daily Show field producer and a person of color who puts his “ass on the line” by participating in a white reenactment of the American Civil War. It makes for a jaw-dropping scene in Hunt’s nimble new film, The Neutral Ground, about the struggle to remove the monuments of the Slave Confederacy and understand why the war never really ended.
Hunt brings a caustically comedic eye that sees things other documentary filmmakers don’t. Anytime someone comes up with a lost cause myth – “the majority of slaves weren’t mistreated even though they didn’t have the freedom to go to San Francisco if they wanted to, or whatever. whatever else “- he adds a playful note to the soundtrack.
Cities with the largest African American populations, Hunt notes, also have the highest concentration of Confederate monuments, which are constant reminders of generational slavery, murder, rape and torture.
“Right now the way white Americans define racism is that it’s hate in your heart, and you have to hate black people to be racist when you don’t,” he said over the phone. “To be racist, you just have to not always believe black people when they tell you what happened to them.”
Wood, who is the executive producer of the film, intervenes, “That’s what this doc really brought out. It shows how willing people are to hang on to their own lies because it comforts them, instead of acknowledging other people’s pain and their need for healing. It is the height of selfishness.
The film opens before Donald Trump’s presidency, the murderous neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, and the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It’s 2015, and an effort is underway in New Orleans to remove four Confederate monuments, including a statue of General Robert E Lee on the city’s highest pedestal.
Debates at city council meetings, including fierce objections from white residents, gained national attention after a white supremacist gunned down nine worshipers at a historic African-American church in South Carolina.
But Hunt, the son of an African American and a Filipina, points out: “It’s important to remember that black people always thought these monuments were weird – that’s a polite word – and always opposed. their. “
A monument in New Orleans literally inscribed with the words “white supremacy,” for example, which was a rallying point for the Ku Klux Klan, drew protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1970s.
“But one of the things that I was able to achieve in the movie, and I think it’s a tragedy, is that when it feels like the statue problem is bursting or is on people’s radar, it’s almost always the result of some heinous, undeniable national act of white supremacist violence.It’s like that window of consensus where white violence gets so severe the rest of the country can hear us. for a second and say to yourself, “Wait, is that what you said?”
New Orleans, a predominantly black city ruled by a white mayor, Mitch Landrieu, voted to remove the monuments in December 2015, but it took more than two years to topple them. Absurdly, Landrieu recalls in the film, he couldn’t find a local entrepreneur who was capable or willing to do the job.
Hunt reflects, “It almost sounds like a fable. They had to travel to a city blacker than New Orleans in order to find a crew to take them down. This crew was from Atlanta and they must have had military contractors and snipers on the roof. It’s like this is what it takes to take down the white supremacy of the public square in America, or it was back then. “
The Civil War of 1861-1865 is often presented as a heroic victory for the north, led by Abraham Lincoln. But a fascinating aspect of the documentary is how the north became complicit in the redemption of the south, throwing statues, publishing books, and spawning films that portrayed Dixie as noble, distinguished, and romantic. As one interviewee put it, the reconciliation of the north and the south was in fact a reconciliation of the whites.
Hunt’s narrative voiceover says, “With the help of the nation’s brightest stars, the Lost Cause finally became immortal, not as a fringe piece of propaganda, but as the story that brought a nation together. A lie born in the south, tanned in the north.
He said over the phone: “We tell ourselves a story that, oh my God, the south got away with building thousands of monuments one way or another; they must have done it slyly. No. The Lee monument [in Richmond, Virginia], the first giant public monument to Confederation in public space, has been tanned in New York City. It comes from the north. There are ads in Confederate magazines: “Do you want a Confederate statue?” Call us. We’re in Boston and we’ll make one for you.
“These events are part of how the nation thinks we’re back, baby we’re together again. It’s northerners and white southerners gathered at these events, putting these things together, and that overflow is really important to us in the movie: Yo! New York plays a decisive role. What do you think our banks were funding? Who do you think was buying all this cotton?
Wood, an African American who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, adds: “Having the South as a bad guy has given the North a way to absolve itself of its own complicity in the whole experience of slavery. Because the Confederacy is seen as the bad guy, at no point do we take stock of the role of the north in feeding the Confederacy, so many of those slaves who ended up needing to be free. So in a way it’s like throwing a stone and hiding your hand.
The Daily Show provides biting commentary by hosting focus groups where attendees share mind-boggling opinions and sending comedian Jordan Klepper to interview Trump fans at campaign rallies. Now it was Hunt’s turn to do satirical reports on leather shoes in bizarre and potentially dangerous situations, including the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville during Trump’s presidency, apparently in defense of yet another statue of Lee.
He recalls, “The Charlottesville terror wasn’t hey, are they going to kill us?” The terror of Charlottesville is to see this white army and to know that it is taking the ascendancy, to feel emboldened and protected by a president who will excuse them – that none of them will suffer consequences.
Hunt also ventured into the Lion’s Den, camping for two nights with Civil War actors in Kentwood, Louisiana, and dressing in a period military uniform. When he engages them in conversation, their surface civility is all the more frightening as it is shrouded in an insistence that slavery wasn’t so bad.
“I’m dying inside because I have to swallow it,” says Hunt. “Some of us take a week to recover from a micro-aggression that occurs in the office: ‘Love the durag’. or whatever – but the feeling of having to willingly place yourself in this situation and spend time with people who tell you to your face that slavery was not that bad and that a lot of slaves did it. appreciated? As a documentary maker, you shouldn’t be judgmental.
“You have to nod, smile and say, ‘Great, now explain that to me.’ There is a swallowing process that I think anyone of color is used to as a condition of being in white spaces where you are one of the only ones. But I also have to admit that it was quite cathartic to be on a battlefield grappling with the army that would have enslaved us. There was the odd aspect of Westworld.
The battle for history continues. After Floyd’s death last year sparked protests for racial justice across the United States, dozens of statues of figures who fought for Confederation have been or should be removed. Last month, the House of Representatives voted to remove all Confederate statues from public display at the United States Capitol in Washington.
When Hunt was a schoolboy, his father gave him printouts of police brutality stories and a book of pictures of lynchings. In the movie, his father tells him, “You can’t be black in America and not be angry.” Hunt replies that it always comes back to the belief that it must be possible to change the minds of the fanatics. Her father laughs and asks, “Why do you think so? Why do you keep this hope? This illusion?
Wood is realistic on this point. “When we talk about change and evolution when it comes to political ideologies, I personally believe that we are not going to change the existing trees but that we can change the way the smaller trees will grow,” he says. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a decrepit old tree that just collapsed. It’s been growing the wrong way for decades and you see the saplings they just planted and they put in some guard stems and sticks and stupid rubber bands and things.
“Projects like this are that rubber band to help guide young people and new people in a different way of looking at the world they’ve lived in. Someone who puts on a woolen suit and goes out and pretends to be still in the Civil War? I don’t know how well you are able to achieve them in the long run.
But Wood adds, “We can gain understanding from them. That’s the one thing that’s really crazy about this project: there were a lot of very measured conversations. There wasn’t a lot of screaming or screaming back and forth. It was just literally, this is how I feel, this is why I feel. And I think that’s more than enough to get things done.
Hunt, a former school teacher, agrees: “One of the reasons we let these people talk for so long is because for me it’s important to chart the main escape routes that white Southerners use around. of that. Let’s show people the escape routes that people use to not face the truth.
“I also wanted to change people’s understanding of what racism is. These people were all very nice to me. They didn’t hate me. They didn’t call me the N word. But their whole worldview is based on this idea that slaves loved slavery and white supremacy didn’t even exist in the past and the echoes of slavery who continue to kill black people do not exist.
“I want to move the conversation forward. It is not about hatred in the heart. White supremacy is about a story we tell about the past so I want people to think about it and from Roy’s perspective we don’t waste time with old trees, we don’t waste time with fanatics. . These are young trees. How can we get this kind of education in schools?