- Movie Rating -

The Neutral Ground (2021)

| August 26, 2021

As with most fire-breathing racial debates over the past five years, I sat watching long debate over the removal of Confederate monuments with a rather knee-jerk indifference.  I am a white American living in relative comfort without a visible racial background so, like many others watching from our living rooms, I didn’t quite understand how the removal of reminders of historical Confederate red-liners – Generals, politicians, etc. – really contributed to the refacing of The United States when it comes to racial harmony.  After all, it’s just a statue.  Right?

The Neutral Ground is a 93-minute documentary that gives you a lot to unpack.  Directed by and starring former “Daily Show” producer C.J. Hunt, the film begins in 2015 with the angry debates over the removal of four key monuments in New Orleans which honor the contributions of General Robert E. Lee, General P.G.T. Beauregard, Confederacy President Jeff Davis, and an obelisk commemorating The Battle of Liberty Place, which offered on its inscription that the state was given as a recognition of white supremacy by the national government – it says this.

Hunt begins the film with a wink and a smile.  He is a black man of Filipino descent whose biggest career highlight up to this point has been writing comedy, but as he begins to explore the issue of Confederate monuments and the racial divide, he begins to have a larger and much more serious view of the issue, not just in confronting America’s legacy of white supremacy but the larger reasons why there was such an opposition.  Why did so many supporters become angry and violent when the idea of removing the monuments were suggested?  What is the history there?

A great deal of this opposition, he discovers, is born of a revisionist history of the cause and effect of The Civil War, particularly when it came to how the south saw their own role in “the lost cause” and rebuilt itself in the early 20th century with a deadly brand of social order enforced by murder and death that essentially put black Americans back in bondage.  This is repudiated by supporters who angrily claim that the south’s reasons for fighting the war was for state’s rights, despite stacks of historical records which claim otherwise – the word slavery comes up in just about every other sentence.

What people see when they approach these monuments is in the eye of the beholder.  The film makes it clear that, for black Americans, these reverential reminders of America’s racial past are reminders of their current reality.  Hunt draws a clear line between the timing of the debate with the rise to power of Mr. Donald J. Trump and the debate over police violence.  As black Americans become furious over their second-class status in the society, they too, become infuriated over America’s unwillingness to deal with its racial history.  Hunt’s own father comes into the film in an eye-opening interview in which he likens white America’s view of racism with that of an alcoholic – you can’t deal with racism until you admit that you are guilty of racism.  America cannot write a democratic future without reconciling with the past.

And that past is really at the heart of this movie.  Hunt’s film digs inside the debate to unearth the issues that led to the debate in the first place.  If you imagine that the debate over Confederate monuments was just an immediate, knee-jerk reaction at a moment of racial upheaval, consider that the debate has been going on since the early 70s.  The film shows us how honoring the lost soldiers of the Confederacy became an angry campaign by the men and women left behind to rebuild and reassert their dominance over freed slaves who, in the wake of the war, had become educated and self-reliant, and to rewrite their own history and to erase from the textbooks the factual history of the cause and effect of the war to the generations of white children that were to come. 

This comes in the form of historical excuses, the idea that the horrors of slavery were only one-tenth of the slave experience, that the rest were taken care of and well-treated despite their bondage.  It comes in the form of Civil War reenactments, forged over weekends with armchair historians whipping up their own verbal histories (Hunt talks to a few of these).  And, of course, in the battle over monuments to men who have been revered as having been good men fighting for a cause, not white supremacy but just in the glorious cause of preserving the south.  It really depends on who you ask.  What is surprising about Hunt’s film is how disturbing the opposition becomes and how loud and violent people are willing to protect this system built on slavery and racial divide.  It shows that America, even in the 21st century, is still not willing to reconcile with its past.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2021) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary