“I was just happy somebody else had to go put their ass on the line instead of me,” deadpans Roy Wood Jr, a correspondent on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show. “I do it enough for Trevor Noah.”
The somebody else was CJ Hunt, a Daily Show field producer and person of colour who puts his “ass on the line” by taking part in a white people’s re-enactment 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 monuments to the slave-owning Confederacy and understand why the war never really ended.
Hunt brings a caustically comic eye that sees things other documentary makers do not. Every time an interviewee utters a myth of the Lost Cause – “the majority of the slaves were not abused even though they didn’t have the freedom to go to San Francisco if they wanted to, or whatever” – he adds a playful ding to the soundtrack.
Cities with the biggest African American populations, Hunt notes, also have the highest concentration of Confederate monuments, which are constant reminders of generational slavery, asesinato, rape and torture.
"Ahora, so much of how white Americans define racism is that it’s about hate in your heart, and you have to hate Black people to be a racist, when that’s not the case,” he says by phone. “To be a racist, you only have to consistently disbelieve Black people when they tell you what is happened to them.”
Wood, who is executive producer of the film, chimes in: “That’s what this doc really nails down. It shows just how much people are willing to hold on to their own lives because it comforts them instead of acknowledging other people’s pain and their need to heal. It’s the ultimate in selfishness.”
The film starts before the Donald Trump presidency, the deadly neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville and the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Es 2015 and an effort is under way in New Orleans to remove four Confederate monuments, including a statue of Gen 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 worshippers at a historic African American church in South Carolina.
But Hunt, the son of an African American man and Filipino woman, points out: “It’s important to remember that Black people have always thought that these monuments were weird – that’s a polite word – and have always pushed back against them.”
A monument in New Orleans literally inscribed with the words “white supremacy”, por ejemplo, which was a rallying point for the Ku Klux Klan, drew protests from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) back in the 1970s.
“But one of the things I was able to realise in the film, and I think a tragedy, is that when it feels like the statue issue is flaring up or is on folks’ radar, it is almost always in the aftermath of a heinous, undeniable national act of white supremacist violence. It’s like this one window of consensus where white violence gets so bad that the rest of the country can hear us for a second and is like, ‘Wait, that’s what you’ve been saying?’”
New Orleans, a majority Black city led by a white mayor, Mitch Landrieu, voted to remove the monuments in December 2015 but it took more than two years to actually topple them. Absurdly, Landrieu recalls in the film, he could not find a local contractor able or willing to do the job.
Hunt reflects: “It almost feels like a fable. They had to go to a city Blacker than New Orleans in order to find a crew to take them down. That crew was from Atlanta and they had to have military contractors and snipers on the roof. It’s like that is what is required to take down white supremacy from the public square in America, or was then.”
The civil war of 1861-1865 is often portrayed 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 south’s redemption, casting statues, publishing books and generating films that portrayed Dixie as noble, genteel and romantic. As one interviewee puts it, the reconciliation of north and south was actually a reconciliation of white people.
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 reunited a nation. A lie born in the south, bronzed in the north.”
He elaborates by phone: “We tell ourselves a story that, oh my God, the south just got away with building thousands of monuments somehow; they must have done it sneakily. No. The Lee monument [in Richmond, Virginia], the first giant public monument to the Confederacy in public space, was bronzed in New York. That comes from the north. There’s 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 tells itself we’re back, baby, we’re back together. These are white northerners and southerners together at these events, putting these things up together, and that spillover is really important for us in the film to be like: Yo! New York is instrumental in this. What do you think our banks were financing? Who do you think was buying all this cotton?"
Wood, an African American man who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, adds: “Having the south as a villain has given the north a way to absolve themselves of their own complicity in the whole experience of slavery. Because the Confederacy is seen as the bad guy, at no point do we ever take stock of the north’s role in feeding the Confederacy, so many of these slaves that 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 having Wood host focus groups with mind-blowing opinions or by sending the comedian Jordan Klepper to interview Trump fans at campaign rallies. Now it was Hunt’s turn to do shoe-leather reporting/ satire in bizarre and potentially dangerous situations, including the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville during Trump’s presidency, ostensibly in defence of yet another Lee statue.
He recalls: "Los terror of Charlottesville was not hey, are they going to kill us? The terror of Charlottesville is seeing this white army and knowing that they are on the ascendancy, feeling emboldened and protected by a president who will excuse them – that none of them will face consequences.”
Hunt also ventured into the lions’ den by camping for two nights with civil war re-enactors in Kentwood, Luisiana, and dressing in period military uniform. When he engages them in conversation, their surface civility is all the more chilling when it comes wrapped in an insistence that slavery was not such a big deal.
“I’m dying inside because I’m having to swallow it down,” Hunt says. “Some of us take a week to rebound from a microaggression that happens in the office – ‘Love the durag.’ or whatever – but the feeling of having to purposely place yourself in that situation and spend time with folks who are saying to your face actually slavery wasn’t that bad and a lot of the slaves enjoyed it? As a documentarian, you have to not pass judgment.
“You have to nod and smile and be like, ‘Great, ahora, explain this to me.’ There’s a process of swallowing it down that I think any person of colour is used to as a condition of being in white spaces where you are one of the only ones. But I’ve also got to admit it felt pretty cathartic to be on a battlefield battling the army that would have had us enslaved. There was the strange Westworld aspect to it.”
The battle for history goes on. After Floyd’s death last year sparked racial justice protests across the US, dozens of statues of figures who fought for the Confederacy were removed or are set to be taken down. Last month the House of Representatives voted to remove all Confederate statues from public display in the US Capitol in Washington.
When Hunt was a schoolboy, his father gave him printouts of stories about police brutality and a book of photos of lynchings. In the film, his father tells him: “It is not possible to be a Black person in America and not be angry.” Hunt replies that he keeps coming back to the conviction that it must be possible to change bigots’ minds. His father laughs and asks: “Why do you think that? Why do you hold that hope out? That illusion?"
Wood is realistic on that point. “When we talk about change and evolution with regard to the ideologies of politics, I personally believe that we are not going to change the existing trees but we can change how the smaller trees will grow," él dice. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen an old, decrepit tree that’s just slouched over. It’s been growing the wrong way for decades and you see the younger trees that they just planted and they put a couple of guard rods and those sticks and those stupid rubber bands and shit.
“Projects like this are that rubber band to help guide younger people and newer people in a different way of considering the world in which they’ve lived. Somebody who’s putting on a wool suit and going out and pretending to still be in the civil war? I don’t know how much you’re able to reach them in the long run.”
But Wood adds: “We can gain understanding from them. That’s the one thing that really is dope about this project: there were a lot of very measured conversations. There wasn’t a lot of yelling or screaming and 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 help move things forward.”
Hunt, a former school teacher, está de acuerdo: “Part of why we let these people talk so long is because for me, it’s important to map out the main routes of escape that white southerners use around this. Let’s show people the routes that of escape that people use to not face the truth.
“I also wanted to shift people’s understanding of what racism is. These people were all very nice to me. They did not hate me. They did not call me the N-word. But their entire worldview is based on this idea that enslaved people liked slavery and that white supremacy did not even exist in the past and that the echoes of slavery that continue to kill Black people are not existing.
“I want to push the conversation forward. This is not about hate in the heart. White supremacy is about a story we tell about the past, so I want folks to think about that and, to Roy’s point, we’re not wasting time on old trees, we’re not wasting time on bigots. It’s about the young trees. How do we get this type of education in schools?"