Review: ‘The Neutral Ground’ takes on the willful ignorance of Confederate defenders
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That old maxim about how those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it has taken on new resonance during our current national argument over how — or whether — we should teach children about some of the more shameful parts of the American story. In his documentary “The Neutral Ground,” comedian and journalist CJ Hunt ventures boldly into the debate, spending time with people on both sides of the dispute over removing monuments to the Confederacy.
Hunt started the film in 2015 while living in New Orleans, where Mayor Mitch Landrieu had called for the removal of four of the city’s most prominent memorials. The fight stretched on for two years, during which time Hunt gathered footage from City Council meetings and public demonstrations, where citizens both for and against tearing down statues had a lot to say.
Hunt has been a field producer on “The Daily Show” (alongside this doc’s executive producer, the comedian Roy Wood Jr.), and at times “The Neutral Ground” takes a very “Daily Show” approach to difficult subjects. There are funny “aren’t people strange?” moments scattered throughout, and whenever Hunt finds a fascinating character, like a friendly and articulate Sons of Confederate Veterans spokesperson, he challenges them but ultimately lets them speak their minds.
“The Neutral Ground” also has some documentary vets on the team, in producer Darcy McKinnon and editor Jane Geisler. Hunt’s likable personality and sometimes traumatic personal experiences are always at the center of the picture. But the film is mostly very serious and even scholarly. The filmmakers dig into the actual history of the Confederacy and its memorials, attempting to debunk the argument that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery or white supremacy.
Because “The Neutral Ground” took so long to complete, the conversations surrounding the monuments change. What started out in New Orleans in 2015 with folks pushing to “preserve history” climaxes in 2017 with Hunt in Charlottesville, Va., witnessing a violent racist riot firsthand. Over time, the Confederacy apologists have gone from using rhetorical arguments and coded language to saying the quiet parts loud — through megaphones.
But whether he’s talking to a genteel amateur historian or a young dude flashing “white power” symbols, Hunt never stops asking questions, trying to get people to commit to what they’re really saying. In one of the movie’s most bracing sequences, he takes part in a Civil War reenactment, then asks the Confederate-defending reenactors to join him at a local slavery museum, an idea they quickly shoot down.
The reason? They insist the museum is biased propaganda, full of lies. In scenes like these, “The Neutral Ground” suggests there should be a corollary to that old maxim: Those who don’t study history do so on purpose, so they can pretend it says whatever they want.
'The Neutral Ground'
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Playing: Starts July 2, Laemmle Glendale; available July 5 on PBS and pbs.org
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