Growing up, CJ Hunt often looked askance at the monuments to the short-lived Confederate States of America that pepper the landscape of the United States. “Black people have always found these monuments weird,” the Afro-Asian comedian and Daily Show field producer tells Yahoo Entertainment. “In the early 1870s, [abolitionist] Frederick Douglass saw fundraising happening for the first Robert E. Lee memorial, and was like, ‘What the f*** is happening?’”
Hunt was front and center when the contemporary debate over Civil War monuments ignited in 2015 after New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu proposed removing the city’s various Confederate memorials, including the Lee statue that Douglass objected to over a century earlier. Observing the heated city council debates that followed, he was struck by the entrenched attitudes of the mostly white voices arguing that the monuments to slaveowners like Lee should continue to stand.
That, in turn, spurred him to ponder how these slabs of stone exist for storytelling rather than historical purposes. “It’s a thing that we think almost nothing about, but it’s also the most permanent type of text that exists. You can write a story into stone and put it in the middle of New York City or the middle of a park in Virginia, and it will just stay there for a century, and people will believe it’s part of the landscape.”
And so Hunt decided to go out and meet those believers where they live. The result is The Neutral Ground, his six-years-in-the-making debut documentary feature that’s having its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Juneteenth, recently designated as a federal holiday by Congress and President Joe Biden. (The film will play on PBS on July 5 as the kick-off for the 34th season of POV.)
The documentary follows Hunt as he makes extensive visits to the South, where the legacy of the Civil War is still very much present a century-and-a-half removed from the Confederacy’s defeat. In his conversations with the neo-Confederates who continue to literally re-enact their long-dead ancestors’ old battles, he saw firsthand the success of what he calls, “the most successful PR campaign that ever happened in America.”
“When PR campaigns stick, they stick, and that’s the case with the Lost Cause,” Hunt says, referring to the alternative Civil War narrative that has long sought to recast the Confederacy in a more heroic light by backgrounding discussions of slavery and secession in favor of the idea that Southern soldiers were nobly fighting to uphold states’ rights. And as The Neutral Ground illustrates, enshrining the Lost Cause in stone was a long-term project undertaken by private groups like the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which had a vested interest in changing the narrative.
“After the war, the UDC and other places were like, ‘Let’s not talk about the generals, let’s not talk about the vice president [Alexander Hamilton Stephens] who clearly said that slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederacy.’ They were so embarrassed by all that, the only thing they could talk about was, ‘Let’s just focus on the individuals. What was in the hearts of those men?’”
“Find me another war where we define the case by the individual motivations of the soldiers,” Hunt continues. “We don’t do that with other eras, but the PR campaign of the Lost Cause was ‘focus on what we imagine within the hearts of individuals.’ That is how many people still talk about the Confederacy, and that extends to the monuments: they aren’t a story about a government that fought like hell to keep slavery. It’s ‘Look at these common soldiers — good people on both sides who just got caught up in the mix.’”
There are examples of more recently built monuments that try to push back against that narrative. In the film, Hunt visits the Whitney Planation in Louisiana, an 18th century plantation that exists today as a museum dedicated to depicting the harsh realities of slavery in the Deep South. The grounds include a striking monument marking the 1811 German Coast uprising — the largest slave revolt in the South. The organizers of the revolt were later executed, and their heads displayed on poles — a disturbing sight that has been recreated for the Whitney’s instillation.
“That monument is controversial, and I understand why,” says Hunt, who is alternately shocked and enraptured by it in the film. “It’s like, ‘Please, why are you showing me yet another piece of trauma done to Black bodies?’ This didn’t make it into the film, but I was talking to other Black tourists who were there, and I asked one woman, ‘Do you think this is too much?’ And her response was, “No, this is what’s happening now.’”
Even as institutions like the Whitney try to challenge the Lost Cause narrative, Hunt sees its impact extending beyond monuments. In recent weeks, actress Ellie Kemper was at the center of a social media firestorm when resurfaced pictures showed her being crowned the Queen of Love and Beauty at the 1999 Veiled Prophet Ball, an event affiliated with a St. Louis organization that was co-founded by a Confederate veteran. (Kemper later apologized on Instagram, writing: “The century-old organization that hosted the debutante ball had an unquestionably racist, sexist and elitist past. I was not aware of this history at that time, but ignorance is no excuse.”)
And in the wake of the George Floyd protests last summer, Amazon reportedly weighed evicting The Dukes of Hazzard from its streaming lineup over the show’s most famous “character,” the General Lee — an orange 1969 Dodge Charger emblazoned with the Confederate battle flag. (The CBS series is still available to rent or purchase on Amazon, but is no longer streaming for free.)
Much like New Orleans’s Lee statue, the racist origins of both the Veiled Prophet Ball and the battle flag seen in The Dukes of Hazzard were obscured by the fact that they’ve endured long enough to become part of the cultural landscape. And that, in turn, allows defenders to think of them in highly personal terms.
“Propaganda is always most effective when it’s able to attach itself to nostalgia,” Hunt says. “So many of the people we met in the film weren’t actually trying to protect Robert E. Lee, the man — they were trying to protect the fact that they have memories of catching beads during Mardi Gras at Lee Circle. And The Dukes of Hazzard isn’t even really about the Confederacy, but people still remember the General Lee and the Duke boys. So when you say, “Hey we want to question what this thing is doing in society,” people are like, “Why are you trying to take something from me?”
“The idea that you have can have a pageant for the ‘veiled prophet’ is absolutely born out of KKK and white supremacist traditions,” he continues. “I hope that this film makes it impossible for folks not to be having the difficult conversations about what that actually means. Once you start seeing how central white supremacy was — not only to the Confederacy, but to the nation — then you just see all the echoes of it. You’re scrolling your Twitter feed and see that Trump is doubling down on defending the Charlottesville [rioters] at the same time that we’re also talking about Ellie Kemper and critical race theory in schools. I hope that the film is like a black light where take it into a hotel room and go, ‘Oh my god.’”
Hunt has firsthand experience with what happened on the streets of Charlottesville in 2017. Two years into making The Neutral Ground, he traveled to Virginia to observe the Unite the Right rally and his camera was rolling as the event descended into chaos and violence. That harrowing footage — including a moment where Hunt is pepper-sprayed while filming the melee — is shown towards the end of the documentary. “I didn’t look at that footage for a couple of years,” Hunt says now. “I just delivered it to my editor and said, ‘I’ll be using this.’ It was part of a coping mechanism of getting some distance from it.”
Within the film, Charlottesville functions as a case study in where white supremacy can lead if allowed to fester unchecked. While the neo-Confederates that Hunt interviews earlier on come across as silly and even avuncular — the director says that early versions of the documentary played almost like a Daily Show sketch — that’s the moment where any sense of humor vanishes.
“After the Trump era, we’re familiar with the notion that something can be both dangerous and dumb,” he explains. “In Charlottesville, the white supremacists looked like cosplaying nerds walking around in the sunlight saying racist things, but then they’re also capable of taking human life. When I look at that footage, I am struck by the fact that they’re not using any euphemisms like “heritage.” They’re just openly saying the white supremacist stuff that has been underneath the surface. I don’t know whether that’s laughable or if we should be cowering in fear about what this means for the world.”
Hunt had completed The Neutral Ground by the time white supremacist groups were among the insurrectionists who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, so that event isn’t seen in the film. But the connection between the two events is perfect fodder for a post-screening epilogue.
“Having actual insurrectionists attacking the government after we made a whole film about how we failed to recognize when insurrections happen in this country — I definitely wanted to include that,” says Hunt. “But we had made our point already. I think the Capitol riot is helpful to our conversation, because we’re already seeing a new propaganda being spun. Like, ‘They weren’t insurrectionists: they were patriots! They weren’t there to hang Mike Pence, They were there to [defend] voting rights reform and free speech!’ Imagine if Trump or another group got enough money to enshrine that narrative in stone. It’s crazy to imagine that it would be up long enough for future generations to think: ‘Well, I guess we can’t take it down.”
In lieu of footage of the Capitol riot, The Neutral Ground instead ends with images of Confederate monuments being taken down in cities around the U.S., including the Lee statue that used to be part of the New Orleans cityscape. For now, at least, that monument remains out of sight as the city decides if — and where — it should be displayed again. For his part, Hunt says that he’s constantly wrestling with what he thinks should be done with Confederate monuments, as well as the spaces they used to inhabit.
“My initial thought was, what if we put a marker that said something like, ‘Here stood a statue to the ensalver Robert E. Lee.’ But when I spoke with [poet and activist] Michael “Quess” Moore about that, he told me, ‘Absolutely not.’ If we put that kind of marker up, neo-Confederates are only going to lay flowers and wreaths there. The real win would be for society to forget about Robert E. Lee, particularly in those public spaces.”
The Neutral Ground premieres July 5 on PBS.
“I think it’s ultimately up to the local communities,” Hunt continues, citing examples like the University of Texas in Austin, which removed a statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the Main Mall in 2015, and then placed it in the campus’s Briscoe Center for American History two years later.
“They quietly moved the statue inside, and it wasn’t a thing,” he notes. “[Monument defenders] say, ‘If you relocate Robert E. Lee, we’re never going to remember him.’ It’s like all of a sudden they forgot that museums exist! If it’s a historical object, we put those in museums, not sacred pedestals. I think the question ultimately is: is it more powerful that we forget about the Confederacy? Or do we need a space where we can tell the full story of the people who put these monuments up — and the story of those who pulled them down.”