On Tuesday, the University of Mississippi’s Program of Cinema Studies, in association with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, hosted a special screening and discussion of “The Neutral Ground” in the Overby Auditorium.
“The Neutral Ground,” a powerful documentary by comedian C.J. Hunt, investigates the memorialization of the Confederacy, highlighting the ongoing efforts to take down monuments in many southern cities. Hunt attempts to deepen awareness regarding the history of racial oppression by posing the question of whether or not these monuments should remain in the public consciousness. The main city Hunt and producer Darcy McKinnon probe is New Orleans.
New Orleans, while a modern hub for Black culture, remained home to a monument for Robert E. Lee (on its highest pedestal) until 2017. In 2015, to explore the potential removal of the statue, Hunt and McKinnon sought to make a comic, yet informative sketch about the various arguments in the conflicts surrounding its removal.
However, upon further inspection, Hunt and McKinnon believed there was a greater story to tell, expanding their efforts into an 82-minute feature, one that would cover the timeline of these systemic issues for the next five years. While Hunt maintains an incisive and constructive viewpoint into the harsh truths and ambiguities of these conflicts, he carefully does so through the healthy conduit of humor.
“It’s contending with a tough history, but doing so with care,” said Leigh Anne Duck, a Department of English associate professor.
Vignettes spliced throughout the film include Hunt reconciling with his own Black heritage, through a heartfelt series of exchanges with his father, and a brilliant montage in which Hunt infiltrates an intricate Civil War re-enactment, utilizing the platform to question the motives of those involved.
The documentarians also seek to explore the false narratives regarding the Confederacy, whether through a socio-political lens, or through a pop-cultural lens, analyzing the likes of “The Birth of a Nation,” “Gone with the Wind” and “Song of the South.”
These narratives elegantly support Hunt and McKinnon’s central dramatic thesis, with the emotional throughline focusing on the practicalities of the Confederate statue removal process in many southern states.
Hunt self-reflexively addresses whether finding comedy in these scenarios is ultimately effective in combating injustice, as the documentary displays brutal, on-the-ground footage of racially-motivated mob violence, particularly in the infamous Charlottesville riots in 2017.
However, the documentary manages to provide a glimmer of hope, showcasing how far we have come in the fight against confederacy memorialization and racial injustice.
“When you start to witness centuries-old statues begin to come down, you start to believe in anything,” Hunt said.
Despite this, the work is not complete. Following the film, McKinnon spoke to the audience about the continuous fight against the south’s history of racial oppression — oppression that remains a point of relevance at our very university and in the city of Oxford. McKinnon herself, and on behalf of Hunt, encourage us to both continue looking inward and to continue questioning.
Hunt is primarily known as a field producer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Darcy McKinnon is a documentary producer based in New Orleans. You can visit https://www.neutralgroundfilm.com/ to learn more about the film.