The Neutral Ground
A documentary about memory, monuments, and how to break up with the Confederacy
Tribeca Film Festival 2021 - Official Selection
AFI DOCS Film Festival 2021 - Official Selection
CJ Hunt - Director & Writer
CJ Hunt is a comedian and filmmaker living in NYC. He is currently a field producer on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. He has also served as a staff writer for A&E's Black and White, and a field producer for BET's The Rundown with Robin Thede. Before working in late night, CJ spent nine years living in New Orleans where - in 2015 - he began filming what he thought would be a quick and easy confederate monument removal. CJ is an alumnus of Firelight Media's Doc Lab and New Orleans Film Festival's Emerging Voices program. He is also a 2020 New America Fellow and a regular host of The Moth. A graduate from Brown University's Africana Studies department, CJ is endlessly fascinated by race and comedy's ability to say what we can't.
Darcy McKinnon - Producer
Darcy McKinnon is a documentary filmmaker based in New Orleans. McKinnon's work in documentaries includes the films Maquilapolis, Live, Nude, Girls, UNITE!, Animals and THE NEUTRAL GROUND with CJ Hunt. With a background in education and arts organization leadership, she produces documentary work that focuses on the American South, and is currently in mid-production on Commuted with Nailah Jefferson, and Katie Mathews’ Roleplay, a hybrid play/documentary about student artist responses to campus sexual assault. She also co-directed a doc short, A Fine Girl, with support from If/Then. McKinnon's work has been broadcast on POV, LPB and Cinemax, and her current projects have received support from SFFILM, CAAM, Chicken
and Egg, Firelight Media, ITVS, Black Public Media, Sundance and Tribeca. Darcy is a co-founder of ALL Y'ALL, with Elaine McMillion Sheldon, an alum of the Impact Partners Producing Fellowship, and one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 2020 25 new faces in independent film.
In 2007, I moved to New Orleans to become a middle school teacher. “Dad, they have a giant statue of Robert E Lee here and a boulevard named after Jefferson Davis” was one of my first reports home. In the following years, I moved out of classroom teaching and split my time between working as an assistant at the Public Defender's Office, teaching improv comedy in an afterschool program, and pursuing my own comedy career at night. For me, comedy is not only a passion; it’s a coping mechanism. It’s how I make sense of the absurdities of the world. And in 2015, there was a glaring absurdity in how hard some people were fighting to hang on to confederate symbols. Even after avowed white supremacist Dylan Roof massacred 9 Black churchgoers in Charleston, there were still legislators fighting the removal of the confederate flag from state grounds. That was absurd. So, I wrote about it. And months later, when Mitch Landrieu, the white mayor of New Orleans, asked the city council to remove four confederate monuments, I braced for more absurdity that was sure to come from New Orleanians who could not bear to see those monuments moved across town. So, I asked my friend Darcy to grab a camera from her office and join me at the city council meetings.
We began filming in December of 2015. Darcy and I believed we were making a 5–10 minute online comedy short. In my mind, the formula was simple: film people saying wacky things at the meetings, interview activists making logical points about why statues to slave owners is a bad look for a majority Black city, and finally film the removal of the monuments. Done. I told Darcy it would take us a few weeks. It has taken us slightly longer - 6 years to be exact. That is largely due to how deeply I underestimated how far some people will go to hang on to statues of slave owners. A day after the New Orleans City Council voted to remove the monuments, the removal was halted by a lawsuit. As that legal stalemate stretched into oblivion, the city’s contractor was run off the job by death threats and what he reports was the firebombing of his car. And it became clear that a larger darker story was unfolding. One that might take longer that might last longer than two weeks.
I started making this film because I find people’s attachment to confederate monuments regrettably but exceptionally funny. Comedy is how I process absurdity. And there are few things as absurd as the fact that a losing army would get to erect one statue - let alone thousands of statues - to their own failed cause. It’s absurd that these statues are so ubiquitous and so grandiose that looking at them, you’d never know the South lost. It’s absurd that white southerners invented whatever version of history they wanted and literally wrote it in stone. Most absurd: these statues have been left in place for so long that a staggering number of people have forgotten that we are able to move them to museums. Confederate monuments embody all of the absurdities about race in America, or rather, the nation’s core racial absurdity: our inability to tell the truth about the past. These absurdities were on full display in the City Council meetings to which we brought our janky little camera. And as the white resistance grew stronger, darker, and more brazen, we slowly realized the project had to evolve into something more than a comedic internet short. I wanted to know why a losing army from 1865 still holds so much power in America. I believe THE NEUTRAL GROUND is asking the question that echoes louder today than ever: what does it take to tell the truth about white supremacy in America? An 83-minute documentary? A 9-minute cell phone video? If we cannot tell the truth about Robert E Lee and the cause of the confederacy, how can we ever tell the truth about the young Nazis waving their banner as they march through Charlottesville or storm the Capitol? If your understanding of history and heritage require you to unsee what has been done to Black people in the past, how can you possibly see what is still being done to us right now? THE NEUTRAL GROUND is an examination of the story America tells itself - about its past and its present - and what it costs (in years, and statues, and lives) to finally be honest.
In 2015, I thought I was making a short comedy about the confederacy. Today, I would not describe the film as “a comedy.” Instead, it is a film about the absurd hold the confederacy still has in America. Sometimes - from a certain angle, with a certain piece of footage - that absurdity is hilarious. Other times, it is harrowing. The film flirts between those poles, because that’s how it feels in my head. Knowing what we know about history, does watching a Black senator proclaim “America is not a racist country” make you laugh or cry?
By August of 2017, the four confederate monuments in question had already come down in New Orleans. By that time, we thought our story was finally over. I had flown from New York (where I had moved and was working in late-night television) to New Orleans to film some final interviews with New Orleanians on what comes next. My last meeting before heading to the airport was a coffee with a local photographer Abdul Aziz. I may have even had my suitcase with me. I was asking Aziz if we might license some of his photos of anti-removal protestors. He agreed and mentioned that he was following some of those very protestors to a new rally blocking the removal of a Robert E Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. The rally was called “Unite the Right.” There was still space in his car if I wanted in it. I canceled my return flight. And we headed off to an event that would change the course of the film. After coming face-to-face with a shockingly young generation of white supremacists on the rise in Charlottesville, there was no way that we could end our movie with the feel-good removal of Robert E Lee in New Orleans. The echoes of Charlottesville filled me with a level of fear and uncertainty about the future that you can feel vibrating through the last act of the film. Ultimately, I think fear makes our film a more honest representation of history - not as an inevitable triumph over white supremacy, but as an uneasy and disorienting existence within it.
One of the less obvious challenges of making THE NEUTRAL GROUND was coming to grips with the fact that I was not making a TV show. When we began filming in 2015, I was living in New Orleans dreaming of writing for television. In the spring of 2016 as the monument removal was halted in the courts, I was hired to write on my first late-night show, A&E’s Black and White. That job moved me to New York. So, the rest of the film would have to be made flying back and forth between New Orleans and New York. While that was logistically difficult, the much harder task was remembering that a film requires a different approach than the short form field pieces I was learning to make for my day job. During many of our interviews, I would try to make jokes on camera that felt like something a late-night correspondent might say. But in the edit, these jokes almost always got cut. My editor Jane, would say “why are you suddenly playing dumb here? It doesn’t feel honest.” Or “we just don’t buy this section where you are pitching statue redesigns. It’s funny but is not the heart of the scene.” And Jane was usually right. On TV, a late-night field piece only lasts five minutes and the audience understands the correspondent is playing a character, a hyperbolic version of themselves that is allowed to be sarcastic or dumb. But watching an interviewer play a character for 83 minutes can be exhausting (unless that person is Sacha Baron Cohen). So, THE NEUTRAL GROUND didn’t really work as a film until I realized I would need to find a way to be myself on camera. I would need to be vulnerable and sincere in a way that often made me feel painfully unfunny and out of control.
We live in a society that tells people of color that white supremacy is not real. It’s a fantasy, an exaggeration, an outlier in the American story perpetuated by a small group of extremists. I hope the success of this film is as a collection of snapshots that captures white supremacy in an irrefutable way. The documents where the confederacy can’t stop talking about slavery, the casual things neo-confederate confess to me by the fire, the portrait of a young Nazi taking off his uniform in Charlottesville, and the violence police officers unload on protestors asking for protection - all of these snapshots ask: can you see it now? I am excited that there is a film that pulls all of these different historical moments together into one conversation.
THE NEUTRAL GROUND [had] its world premiere in New York - a city that still has a monument and circle dedicated to Christopher Columbus. What does that say about the supposed progressiveness of the north? What does that say about the depths of our myths and then men - Washington, Jackson, Jefferson - whose myths are central to the story of the nation?
I want audiences to question the stories we grew up with - the version of history that was handed to us by our families and social studies teachers. I want our film to contribute to the growing conversation around how students in America learn about slavery and the Civil War. What would it take to require ALL students in America to articulate how the nation’s bitter debate about slavery led to the Civil War? I believe students who learn about the roots of white supremacy in our nation’s history do not grow to hate America. Instead, they grow to understand why we still have the fights we do. I also want comfortable northern audiences to question the myths they still hold. In the summer of 2020, we saw southern towns remove hundreds of confederate monuments and markers.
As a filmmaker, I’d like to fall somewhere between Marlon Riggs and Sacha Baron Cohen. There is a long tradition of Black filmmakers who bring the archive to life (see Stanley Nelson Jr.) in a way that makes white supremacy undeniable and renders Black joy and resistance visible. There is another tradition of white men with microphones (see Michael Moore) who slide into office buildings, gun shows, and county fairs to take a secret snapshot of America in its ugliest naked form. I draw on both of those traditions, and I try to remember that taking irrefutable snapshots of white supremacy doesn’t actually mean anything if my work does not also render Black humanity and resistance visible.
-CJ HUNT Director, THE NEUTRAL GROUND