It’s an exploration of race in America—and his own life—that’s been years in the making. The Neutral Ground is CJ Hunt’s feature-length documentary about the struggle to remove Confederate monuments. The topic is timely in light of the racial justice protests sparked by the Memorial Day killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but Hunt was at work on this project long before this year’s movement to remove Confederate statues and flags.
Hunt is best-known as a writer, standup comic, and field producer for Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show. He usually takes serious topics and spins them into nuggets of humor for audiences to chew on. But he bit off a pretty big chunk with his documentary. “Field producers are people who have both film skills and a comedy mind,” he says, but he’s never on-camera for The Daily Show.
He’s on-camera a lot in his documentary, though. His television experience has been a training ground for his film presence in another way. “When we started in 2015, the thing I wanted more than anything was to be on a writing staff for late night. I didn’t think I would be a director. It’s been kind of cool, five years later I’m at a place where I feel comfortable. I feel like a director. Each field piece (for The Daily Show) is like a little movie.”
The Neutral Ground originally focused on New Orleans’ efforts to take down the city’s four Confederate monuments. Hunt was living in New Orleans in 2015 when nine Black parishioners in a Charleston, S.C. church were murdered by a white supremacist in June. Mitch Landrieu, who was mayor of New Orleans at the time, proposed the idea of removing Confederate statues from the city, and Hunt began filming the city council meetings that eventually led to the vote to remove the monuments in December, 2015.
But it took more than two years before New Orleans took down its Confederate statues.
Hunt filmed the monuments’ removal in May 2017 and expanded the project to include the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia three months later. Now, in the context of the Black Lives Matter protests and wave of anti-Confederate sentiment in the country, and a racially-charged presidential election looming, the time is ripe to finish The Neutral Ground.
“When you’re telling a story about white supremacy, it’s hard to know when you’re done. I thought we were done in the summer of 2017. Then Charlottesville happened,” he says. “We were locking the edit this spring before George Floyd was murdered, and we saw the birth of a movement powerful enough to defund police departments and throw Columbus back into the sea.”
Hunt is keenly aware of the daily news cycles still swirling around racial justice issues, but he has wrapped the filming to focus on post-production. He’d like to finish it before the November presidential election, but if it’s released after the election, he feels the subject will still resonate with viewers.
“I want it to be done before the election because that’s the highest impact for me. And then, and then the larger thing is just, you know, this idea that it never goes away and that (the film) continues to be relevant.”
Hunt is also working with the added challenge of the COVID-19 maelstrom. “The current pandemic has definitely affected both post-production and filming,” he admits.
This summer, Hunt and his crew went back out filming for the ending of the documentary, mainly in New Orleans and Richmond. To stay safe in the midst of the COVID pandemic, they were masked and avoided the up-in-the-crowd shots they used to love. “Having begun our film in 2015 when simply relocating confederate monuments was hard for many to even imagine, I feel lucky that we can end our story in a moment when removals have become routine,” he reflects “It is stunningly clear how our fight about monuments is part of a larger battle against the ways white supremacy has built itself into our world – pretending to be neutral and immovable.”
He notes that The Neutral Ground—which is named after street medians and public spaces in New Orleans—won’t capture the end of the racial divide.
Hunt is biracial Asian and African American. He loves Filipino culture (and food), but his Filipina mother died when he was young, so his father has had more influence on him. He received a degree in Africana Studies from Brown and his career as a writer and comic has spotlighted issues of race.
“Growing up Black and Filipino,” CJ insists, “I’ve always been interested in race.” However, his father disagrees. In one telling scene from the film, his father insists, “there was a time in your life when you didn’t even know you were Black.” Then, the elder Hunt adds that his son tried everything to deny his Blackness, including changing his appearance. It’s a cringe-inducing segment, but funny – and smart. Especially when the filmmaker captures his dad making pancakes using Aunt Jemima pancake mix, which Quaker Oats has announced will be renamed, without its portrayal of a Black woman that hearkens back to post-slavery days even after being modernized.
“It’s something that we had in the house, and it is the thing that my dad does the best,” Hunt says. “Whenever you film with parents, you need to give them an activity, right, in order to have them open up,” Hunt says.. “So I was like ‘hey why don’t you make pancakes?’ And then it was like, Oh, this is actually kind of perfect, a little symbol in the background so all these things that are just sort of in the movie, take on this new relevance.”
His biracial heritage was also a neutral ground of sorts during the shooting of the film.
People are comfortable being interviewed by him, even if they are proud defenders of the Confederacy. He even gets to participate in a Civil War battle reenactment. He dresses as a Union soldier (“We’re the bad guys,” he’s told) and admits he enjoyed the experience. In one chilling scene, Hunt and an African American photographer walk alongside marching neo-Nazis who are chanting anti-Semitic and racist slogans.
“It is not just a film about white supremacists being bad. It is a film about how we figure out who we are and what we cling to even when we know it’s not true,” he explains. Hunt draws upon his own emotions about growing up mixed race in the suburbs. His multiracial heritage and ambiguity are part of the story.
“I’m able to enter and ride that privilege for access (to) certain spaces. You know, so when characters in the film talk about Blacks, it is clear that they don’t believe that the person they’re talking to is Black.”
The Charlottesville footage gave added context to his film, but The Neutral Ground is still primarily about New Orleans. He moved there and taught English to fifth through seventh graders, and began teaching improv comedy at night. Then he began working for the public defender’s office as an assistant to the chief public defender. When the controversy over confederate monuments hit the news, he decided to begin capturing it on film. The film, which is produced by New Orleans documentary filmmaker Darcy McKinnon, has received funding from ITVS, the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation.
“I wanted to tell a very specific story about a city that has gone through a process and multiple hearings and said, ‘This is what we are going to do, and is unable to do that because of white resistance, of moneyed interests at the level to be able to sue in every court available. And also vigilante violence. It made me feel like I was living in history in the same way that I think we feel now.”
Hunt knows that there might be some opposition to not just his film, but to this year’s events that are causing monuments to be torn down. During most of the time that he’s been making The Neutral Ground, he has been worried about backlash.
But that hasn’t kept him from continuing his project. “What is actually really heartening about this moment, is that the people marching and pulling statues down, are operating in a completely different paradigm.”
Gil Asakawa is a journalist (www.nikkeiview.com ) and author of The Toy Book (Knopf, 1991) and Being Japanese American (Stone Bridge Press, 2nd edition 2004). He’s currently working on Tabemasho! a history of Japanese food in America, for 2021 publication.
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