In 2015, the New Orleans City Council passed a proposal by then-mayor Mitch Landrieu to remove five monuments around the city dedicated to Confederate soldiers. It took several years for these five to be removed due to legal action attempting to prevent it, along with protests, threats of violence, and actual intimidation tactics. The reason behind removing the statues is a simple one: why do we honor people that not only fought for sedition, but did so in the name of continuing slavery? From the other side, the reason for opposing the removal had everything to do with respecting the fallen. Intrigued, documentarian CJ Hunt decided to explore this following the events in New Orleans which spread to other cities around the world, exploring why individuals whose contributions to global history are crueler than the books suggest are so positively remembered. After premiering at Tribeca 2021 and screening on PBS in July, Hunt’s The Neutral Ground arrives at the 52nd Nashville Film Festival, bringing with it a potent set of questions, that may, if the audience is willing to consider them, just bring up a simple, if uncomfortable answer about our own complicity more than a century later.
During the introduction to the documentary, Hunt explains that after moving to New Orleans, he became a middle school teacher and worked on his stand-up. Upon learning about the proposal, he decided to make a documentary of his own in the style of late night television. Between the editing, the music, style of shots, and journalistic approach, it’s pretty clear that “late night television” translates to “The Daily Show” or “The Colbert Report.” That Hunt’s profile on The Neutral Ground’s official website says he’s now in New York City working as a field producer on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” is not a shock as much of The Neutral Ground feels like an extended episode of any iteration of “The Daily Show.” This is not a bad thing, but it is incredibly familiar and, if you’re a fan of that style, strangely comforting. Don’t mistake The Neutral Ground as some kind of copycat as it possesses its own style, including flourishes that make the history of New Orleans, as it relates to the Civil War (known to many in the South as “The Lost Cause”), Antebellum period, and everything up to now, tangible and current. That it often happens with a humorous edge just makes the majority of perception-shaking information much more palatable.
So what does this look like? It means that Hunt takes photos of modern New Orleans and has an image of that same spot from a previous point in history bleed in, anchoring the past to the present in a very tangible way. It means Hunt, even while talking to leaders in pro-Confederate groups or taking part in a reenactment of a Civil War battle, will bring up portions of the official declaration of sedition which plainly states that the abolition of slavery is the root cause of their action. This means showing us the similarity between the arguments against the removal of statues in 2015 and those in the summer of 2020. Hunt not only speaks to those in positions of historical authority, but with those on the ground, attempting to get as clear a nonpartisan picture in as possible. The trick is that the information he presents contains its own slant and it leans toward an uncomfortable truth: what we’ve been told for generations may well be a lie.
Much in the way that modern Americans learned of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921 from the 2019 limited HBO series Watchmen, so have I learned of the 1811 slave rebellion in New Orleans via The Neutral Ground. The rebellion is first discussed when Hunt goes to the Whitney Planation, one of few (if the only) plantations which doesn’t hide or reduce the violence endured by the slaves kept there. Hunt goes to a memorial which several recreated heads placed upon pikes, an absolutely grisly and disquieting piece. So much of what Neutral Ground has discussed or explored up to this point included quite a bit of obfuscation on the part of the pro-Confederate individuals who downplay the violence and continue the oft-repeated rhetoric that cruel masters were few and that slaves were delighted to be on the planation. This memorial very clearly refutes this assertion and, it’s from this point forward, that, while still humorous at times, the truth of what the South proclaims about what caused the Civil War, about White Supremacy, and America is built upon a series of lies and reimaginings of history to the point that even the language used to describe things is all about positive spin, not historical accuracy. For instance, it never occurred to me until watching the documentary just how much of the media we consume has altered how I’ve viewed the Antebellum South: The Littlest Rebel (1935), Gone with the Wild (1939), and even Song of the South (1946) are tools created by the so-called “North” to help reframe the public’s view of slavery-era South as a place of gilded lilies rather than a place of subjugation. There’s a saying, “believe half of what you see and none of what you hear,” and it feels entirely accurate regarding what Americans think they know about the Civil War. Thanks to films like The Neutral Ground, Rise Again: Tulsa and the Red Summer (2021), and All In: The Fight for Democracy (2020), a different narrative, one closer to the truth, has a chance to come out for those who are unfamiliar.
Before it ends, Neutral Ground goes to an unexpected place, tying together the lineage of racial violence, slavery, and intolerance that makes up much of New Orleans history with the events in Charlottesville, VA, at both the Unite the Right rally on May 29th, 2020, and the police protest march on May 30th, 2020. It’s not so great a leap as the rhetoric used to subjugate and intimidate in the era of slavery finds its way out of the mouths of people there. Hearing the chanting of “Blood and Soil” and “They Will Not Replace Us” is terrifying enough in concept, yet to watch as Hunt and his friend, photographer Abdul Aziz, march alongside the members of the Unite the Right rally, it’s enough to make your blood run cold. The tactics of old are not yet gone from our collective and social memory, which brings us back to the central purpose of the documentary: the removal of the statues in New Orleans. This removal must feel like an erasure of history from those who consider the Confederates merely misguided concerned citizens and not enemies of America. But what does it say when a city primarily made up of African-Americans lives on, drives on, or commutes by streets named for Confederates? What does it say when so many of the statues were made with the endorsement of the Klu Klux Klan? What does it tell the people of that city about who is important to the history of New Orleans? Hunt asks the audience to consider this and much more, balancing truth and humor on a razor’s edge.
Screening during the 2021 Nashville Film Festival Monday, October 4th at Belmont University – Large Theater.
Head to the festival’s Eventive page to purchase virtual tickets for The Neutral Ground.
For more information, head to the official The Neutral Ground website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.