New Orleans City Council voted to remove four Confederate monuments in 2015, and director CJ Hunt was there filming it all. After learning that council members received death threats from angry critics in the days following, Hunt decided to expand his footage into a feature documentary that explores everything from the original decision to erect the monuments, to the Charlottesville riot in the age of Trump, to the attempted rewriting of history by white supremacists.
There’s a lot of information to digest, and Hunt presents his material in a very academic manner. It’s annoying how the film feels like he’s trying to make a “Daily Show” style rip-off (which makes sense because Hunt works as a field producer for the program), placing himself in front of the camera where he does his best Trevor Noah and Jon Oliver impersonations. This gives the film a small screen ambiance with out of place humor that sometimes lessens the gravity of the issues at hand.
Some of the more compelling aspects of the documentary are the one-on-one interviews with proponents of keeping the statues on display and the opponents who are offended by what they represent. It’s clear these opinions are divided along racial lines, especially when it comes to New Orleans, a city with a majority of black residents. While many see the monuments as a celebration of slavery, others see them as giving meaning to the lives of the soldiers lost by white Southerners and their families during the Civil War. Hunt gives everyone equal time, letting his subjects talk openly and candidly to present their sides, no matter how misguided their positions may be. Be aware that some of the things they say on camera is shocking and, quite frankly, downright disgusting.
Hunt goes on to make a valid point that many don’t know the truth about slavery because they were never accurately taught, with schools pushing a narrative that aligns with a Southern Confederacy that has been romanticized in pop culture. The film also suggests that the white resistance to the removal of the statues may partially be because some don’t want to face the uncomfortable truth behind the reality of slavery in the South. It’s surprising that New Orleans hasn’t locked away its racist history as part of Southern America’s shameful past, but celebrates the horrors out in the open. Several of the (now removed) monuments were located next to government buildings, which according to some historians was done in a statement of white supremacy that was intended to let the public know who was “in charge.”
There’s a lot of information to digest in “The Neutral Ground,” and it’s highly educational no matter what you think you know about American history. This documentary doesn’t showcase particularly skilled or seasoned filmmaking, but it’s an important and compelling topic for a feature film.