“I was happy that someone else had to risk their butt instead of me,” says Comedy Central correspondent Roy Wood Jr. The daily show. “I do it enough for Trevor Noah.”
The other was CJ Hunt, a Daily Show field producer and a person of color who risks his butt by participating in a white reenactment of the American Civil War. It’s an amazing scene in Hunt’s nimble new movie, The neutral ground, about the fight to remove the monuments to the Slavery Confederacy and understanding why the war never really ended.
Hunt brings a caustically comical eye that sees things other documentary makers don’t. Every time an interviewee utters a Lost Cause myth – “most of the slaves weren’t abused even though they weren’t free to go to San Francisco if they wanted to, or whatever” – add a playful ding to The Band. sound.
Cities with the largest African-American populations, Hunt notes, also have the highest concentration of Confederate monuments, which are constant reminders of generational slavery, murder, rape and torture.
“Right now, a lot of the way that white Americans define racism is that it’s about hatred in your heart, and you have to hate blacks to be a racist, when that’s not the case,” he says over the phone. . “To be a racist, you just have to constantly not believe black people when they tell you what happened to them.”
Wood, who is the film’s executive producer, chimes in: “That’s what really defines this documentary. It shows how willing people are to hold onto their own lives because it comforts them rather than acknowledging other people’s pain and need to heal. It’s the ultimate in selfishness. “
The film begins before the presidency of Donald Trump, the deadly neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville and the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. It is 2015 and an effort is underway in New Orleans to remove four Confederate monuments, including a statue of General Robert E Lee on the highest pedestal in the city.
Debates at city council meetings, including fierce objections from white residents, gained national attention after a white supremacist shot dead nine worshipers at a historic African-American church in South Carolina.
But Hunt, the son of an African-American man and a Filipino woman, notes: “It’s important to remember that blacks have always thought these monuments were strange, that’s a polite word, and they have always rejected them.”
A monument in New Orleans literally inscribed with the words “white supremacy” for example, which was a rallying point for the Ku Klux Klan, sparked protests by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the 1970s .
“But one of the things that I was able to realize in the movie, and I think a tragedy, is that when it seems like the issue of the statue is coming up or is on people’s radar, it’s almost always after an egregious , undeniable national act of white supremacist violence. It’s like this window of consensus where white violence gets so bad that the rest of the country can listen to us for a second and say, ‘Wait, is that what you’ve been saying?’ ”.
New Orleans, a black majority city led by a white mayor, Mitch Landrieu, voted to remove the monuments in December 2015, but it took more than two years to tear them down. Absurdly, Landrieu recalls in the movie, he couldn’t find a local contractor capable or willing to do the job.
Hunt reflects: “It almost sounds like a fable. They had to go to a city blacker than New Orleans to find a team to take them down. That team was from Atlanta and they had to have military contractors and snipers on the roof. It’s as if that’s what it takes to remove white supremacy from the public square in America, or it was then. “
The civil war of 1861-1865 is often described as a heroic victory for the north, led by Abraham Lincoln. But a fascinating aspect of the documentary is how the north became complicit in the redemption of the south, melting down statues, publishing books, and spawning films that portrayed Dixie as noble, gentle, and romantic. As one interviewee says, the reconciliation of the north and the south was actually a reconciliation of the whites.
Hunt’s voice-over narrative reads: “With the help of the nation’s brightest stars, the Lost Cause finally became immortal, not as a fringe piece of propaganda, but as the story that brought a nation together. A lie born in the south, tanned in the north ”.
He explains over the phone: “We told ourselves a story that, my God, the south got away with building thousands of monuments somehow; They must have done it secretly. Not. Lee’s monument [in Richmond, Virginia], the first giant public monument to the Confederacy in public space, was tanned in New York. That comes from the north. There are ads in Confederate magazines: ‘You want a Confederate statue? Call us. We are in Boston and we will make one for you.
“These events are part of how the nation tells itself that we are back, darling, that we are back together. These are white Northerners and Southerners together at these events, putting these things together, and that overflow is really important to us in the movie to be like: Me! New York is central to this. What do you think our banks financed? Who do you think was buying all this cotton? “
Wood, an African American man who grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, adds: “Having the South as a villain has given the North a way to absolve itself of its own complicity in the entire experience of slavery. Because the Confederacy is seen as evil, at no point do we take stock of the role of the north in feeding the Confederacy, so many of these slaves that they ended up needing to be free. So, in a way, it’s like throwing a stone and hiding your hand. “
The Daily Show offers scathing comments on having Wood organize focus groups with mind-blowing opinions or sending comedian Jordan Klepper to interview Trump fans at campaign rallies. Now it was Hunt’s turn to report / satire on shoe leather in bizarre and potentially dangerous situations, including the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville during the Trump presidency, apparently in defense of another Lee statue.
He recalls: “The Charlottesville terror was not hey, are they going to kill us? The terror of Charlottesville is seeing this white army and knowing that they are on the rise, feeling emboldened and protected by a president who will excuse them, that none of them will face consequences. “
Hunt also ventured into the lion’s den by camping for two nights with reenactors of the civil war in Kentwood, Louisiana, and dressing in the military uniform of the time. When he engages them in conversation, his superficial politeness is even more chilling when wrapped in an insistence that slavery wasn’t that important.
“I’m dying inside because I have to swallow,” Hunt says. “Some of us take a week to recover from a micro-injury that happens in the office: ‘I love durag.’ Or whatever, but the feeling of having to purposely put yourself in that situation and spend time with people who are telling you to your face that slavery was actually not that bad and that many slaves enjoyed it? As a documentarian, you don’t have to pass judgment.
“You have to nod and smile and say, ‘Great, now explain this to me.’ There is a swallowing process that I think any person of color is used to as a condition of being in blank spaces where one is one of the only ones. But I must also admit that it felt quite cathartic to be on a battlefield fighting the army that would have enslaved us. It had the odd Westworld look. “
The battle for history continues. After Floyd’s death last year sparked racial justice protests across the United States, dozens of statues of figures who fought for the Confederacy were removed or are ready to be shot down. Last month the House of Representatives voted to delete all Confederate statues on public display at the United States Capitol in Washington.
When Hunt was a schoolboy, his father gave him printed copies of stories about police brutality and a photo book of lynchings. In the movie, his father tells him: “It is not possible to be black in America and not be angry.” Hunt responds that he keeps coming back to the conviction that it must be possible to change the minds of fans. His father laughs and asks, “Why do you think that? Why do you keep that hope? That illusion?
Wood is realistic on that point. “When we talk about change and evolution regarding ideologies of politics, I personally believe that we are not going to change existing trees, but we can change the way that smaller trees will grow,” he says. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a decrepit old tree that is just bent over. It’s been growing the wrong way for decades and you see the younger trees they just planted and they put in a couple of guard bars and those sticks and those stupid rubber bands and shit.
“Projects like this are that rubber band to help guide the young and new in a different way of looking at the world in which they have lived. Someone who puts on a wool suit and goes out and pretends to be still in the civil war? I don’t know how long it will be able to reach them. “
But Wood adds: “We can get understanding from them. That’s what’s really cool about this project – there were a lot of very measured conversations. There wasn’t a lot of yelling or yelling back and forth. It was literally, that’s how I feel, that’s why I feel. And I think that’s more than enough to help move things forward. “
Hunt, a former school teacher, agrees: “Part of the reason we let these people talk so long is because, for me, it is important to map the main escape routes used by Southerners. targets around this. Let’s show people the escape routes that people use to avoid facing the truth.
“I also wanted to change people’s understanding of what racism is. All of these people were very nice to me. They didn’t hate me. They didn’t call me the N word. But their entire worldview is based on this idea that enslaved people liked slavery and that white supremacy didn’t even exist in the past and that the echoes of slavery that continue to kill black people they do not exist.
“I want to get the conversation going. It is not about hatred in the heart. White supremacy is about a story we tell about the past, so I want people to think about that, and for Roy’s point, we’re not wasting time with old trees, we’re not wasting time with bigots. It is about the young trees. How do we get this kind of education in schools? “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism