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New POV doc explores the history of Confederate statues — and why they divide us

Comedian and journalist C.J. Hunt joins to discuss his new POV documentary, “The Neutral Ground,” which explores the burning issues of Confederate statues. The documentary, which airs on PBS on Monday, follows the removal of four of Confederate statues in New Orleans and discusses why some of these symbols continue to hold power in our nation.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Confederate statues and monuments continue to come down across the country but thousands remain.

    Tomorrow a new P.O.V. documentary "The Neutral Ground" will premiere on PBS stations. It follows the removal of four confederate statues in New Orleans and explores why some of these symbols hold so much power in America.

    The film is also a debut for first-time director, comedian and filmmaker C.J. Hunt who joined me to talk about the film.

    The Neutral Ground, what's it mean?

  • CJ Hunt:

    Number one, we wanted to pick a title that was not very helpful on Google. Number two, the grassy median between two streets is called the neutral ground. So in New Orleans, that's where folks are standing at Mardi Gras, it's where you go to barbecue. This is meant and known in New Orleans as a community space. It also happens to be where the Confederacy built most of its monuments to slave owners and traders. So for us, that is the film. What does it mean to have the common space for everyone also occupy to groups called the White League.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what's in a name? What's in a monument? Even if a street name gets changed, even if a monument is taken down by a city, how do we change attitudes of the citizens that live there?

  • CJ Hunt:

    I think it's not about attitudes. I think the way that we talk about race is always about how do we change attitudes? How do we get people to change their hearts to be less racist? I think monuments are helpful because they make race concrete. They're a map of power. If you have a 60 foot tall pedestal to someone who was an enslaver and it's the highest place of honor in your city, that's just a map of what power looks like in that city. So it's not that the success is in getting the monument down, it's that the monument allows us to see things and call things out loud that we couldn't before, or that we were and no one was listening.

    And growing up Black and Filipino, I've always been deeply fascinated by the dynamics of race.

    No, there was a time in your life when you didn't even know you were Black.

    OK, but basically from that point on, I think I've been very interested.

    No, no, not even that.

  • CJ Hunt:

    I moved to New Orleans in 2007 as a teacher, but most of my career by 2015 had become around creating satire, you know, trying to make comedy. And for me, comedy is always motivated by anger or like what is driving me crazy. And in 2015, the thing driving me crazy was in the wake of the Charleston massacre, all this in your face, white supremacist violence related to the Confederacy. Still, so many folks wanted to say this was never about slavery. This has nothing to do with race.

    One of the things I'm excited about in this film is what it might mean for teachers and students, because it's heavily, it's really based on documents. So I know not a lot of students are like, who wants to get hyped for primary sources? But for this film, you know, we try to make those come to light. And in these documents that the Confederacy wrote that founded the Confederacy before the war, they're really out on Front Street saying, you know, we are firmly identified with the institution of slavery. Louisiana looks to the formation of a southern confederacy to preserve slavery and then they backtrack. All these weird arguments of it wasn't about slavery, it was about states' rights. Slavery wasn't that bad. Those come from somewhere and those come from the most effective propaganda campaign that has ever been waged in American history. Second to Columbus discovered America. That's number one. It wasn't about slavery, number two.

    As a former theater boy, I love costumes and bonding with a cast of dedicated performers, which makes a Civil War reenactment unexpectedly fun. Until, of course, you start talking about anything besides the costumes.

    My bloodline, I could be the Grand Imperial Cyclops, whatever the hell you want to say of the KKK.

    Are you? You have to tell me if you are.

    I don't know.

    The whole thing about the civil war is in a nutshell, is this: the war actually started, it wasn't because of slavery.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    There's an interesting conversation you have with an elderly gentleman who basically says, you know what, you shouldn't be going out to give any legitimacy from an illegitimate point of view. And yet, as a journalist, as a documentarian, here you are, trying not necessarily to both sides of the situation, but you're trying to understand someone's point of view.

  • CJ Hunt:

    I think we owe them that, and I think we owe ourselves that it is different than I think in 2016, you know, as a journalist in 2016, journalists were wrapped up and I think maybe we don't talk enough to the other side and maybe we need to go into living rooms and maybe we need to eat a meal and we'll finally understand how we're unified. To me that's not the model. To me it is, when we talk about hate, we need to be very clear about how prevalent that is, it is rooted in how people view their history. So to me, I don't think the film is going to convince anyone who doesn't think that racism is real. I don't think they're going to come out and be like, I guess racism is real. I guess it was about slavery. But I was hoping for clarity and that the only way to get that clarity is to actually go and talk to those people and let their own arguments come to the surface. And you judge them by their arguments, not by me finger wagging.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    In this process, how did doing this work affect you? I mean, we kind of see your arc shift a little bit from when you approach this, about the monuments in New Orleans to the Charlottesville rally.

  • CJ Hunt:

    Trying to tell this story was clarifying about my own thoughts about white supremacy. You know, half of the time when I'm talking about white supremacy, I think that I'm doing it to try to convince white supremacists to not be bigots. You know, I think that's a thing that a lot of historical documentarians come up with when we're digging up all these receipts. It's like, who are those receipts for? Who needs to see documentary evidence to believe that this actually was about slavery? So for me, the biggest change was realizing we're not talking to the other side, when we make these arguments about the truth of the past, we're not trying to convince white supremacists in the League of the South to change their mind. We're not even convincing white supremacists in Congress to change their mind. I think we're talking to folks in the middle and I think we're talking to students. And I think that is the nature of truth telling, this idea that you're going to somehow strike up a friendship with the white supremacist and all of a sudden it's going to be Green Book. I think that's what American audiences and quite frankly, white audiences often want out of stories. They want reconciliation. But I think the work is actually reckoning. How do we tell the truth about the past?

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Director CJ Hunt, thanks so much for joining us.

  • CJ Hunt:

    Thank you, Hari.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The documentary is called The Neutral Ground, and it will air on PBS stations July 5th. Check your local listings.

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