Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: CJ Hunt
By Caz Armstrong
The neutral ground refers to the grassy space between streets, designed to be a space where everyone can meet together. This documentary shows one man’s attempts to explore the ‘neutral ground’ of monuments to white supremacy.
During the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War a number of statues of white supremacists were erected in New Orleans, along with other monuments and street, school, and building names commemorating slave owners. As the KKK was being founded, they wanted to send a clear message about just where the seat of power lay.
In 2015 the New Orleans City Council finally voted to remove four statues of white supremacists, ridding the city of the most prominent symbols of racism, injustice and white supremacy. The documentary’s presenter and director CJ Hunt was filming the vote and thought this would actually lead to the statues’ swift removal.
This film documents the turbulent years that followed, the counter-protests and death threats from those so passionate about keeping these abhorrent structures. Hunt attempts to open up a neutral ground with these supporters, examining their arguments and having an open dialogue in the vague hope that they might listen to reason. But as the white supremacists become even more emboldened he finds that neutral ground getting ever smaller.
Despite such difficult subject matter the documentary has a very accessible style. It’s heartfelt and funny. Hunt deals with his own identity and engagement with race issues with honesty and self deprecation. The music is used especially brilliantly to point at, contrast, mock and highlight. The editing is meticulous in upholding this comedy style while making a clear point. A little ‘gotcha’ bell pings every time a white supremacist trots out the same propogandist myths, reminding us just how buzzword-bingo their arguments are. They regurgitate the same go-to excuses to justify the existence of these monuments and comfort themselves with lies that have been used to sanitise the very idea of slavery and the continued protection of the statues.
“In a city built on nostalgia, how do you get people to let go of the structures they grew up with? If you’re Mitchell Andrew you just wait…
… until they’re asleep”
Yet the seriousness of the issue is not lost. We laugh out loud at the racists with their ignorance and Civil War reconstructions. They seem to walk right into it so easily and their arguments are so weak they could be knocked down with a feather.
But the nature of the documentary itself takes a turn. Hunt realises that while he started intending to make a film with humour, simply letting the interviewees make fools of themselves, they can’t see the flaw in their own arguments even when pointed out. And they begin to change into something else.
As the battle to actually remove the statues develops over a number of years the racists only seem to get bolder, resulting in whites-only marches through the streets, the murder of Heather Hayer and the attempted murder of many others.
At the end of this journey though we are given some hope that justice can still be done and monuments to racism can be torn down, both in America and across the world.
This film has a lot going on. It’s educational and accessible, teaching a lot about America’s history and relationship with racism. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, sharp and self deprecating. There are shocking, uncomfortable and upsetting moments, but it also has a hopeful message that we CAN take action and remove monuments to hate from our streets.
“The Neutral Ground” shows us that the better way to remember may be to tell your own stories. To reclaim and retell the truth. To perform re-enactments of uprisings for justice not battles for power. To remember not just pain but moments of change.