CJ Hunt, a field producer for The Daily Show, spoke with Solzy at the Movies about the new documentary, The Neutral Ground.
The Neutral Ground will open exclusively at the Laemmle Glendale Theatres on July 2, 2021. Following the Independence Day weekend, the film will hold its broadcast premiere Monday July 5, 2021 on PBS at 9:30 p.m. ET (check local listings) and at pov.org. The Neutral Ground will also be available to stream for free at pov.org until August 4, 2021.
It’s my understanding that The Neutral Ground originated as an idea for a short online video. At what point did you decide that there’s an idea here for a documentary feature?
CJ Hunt: When it started, I moved to New Orleans as a teacher and then by 2015, I was really just living in New Orleans, writing a lot of comedy, really desperate to figure out how to write for TV. So yeah, it definitely seemed natural. We were talking about Jordan [Klepper] and I was definitely watching a lot of Jordan’s pieces of how good he is at that sort of battle of talking to folks on the street. So yeah, it seemed ripe for that in terms of how absurd some of the folks were being. I think that in general, the core of satire is like, Look at this, isn’t this strange. But as white supremacy gets worse, it becomes hard. Part of when I realized that this probably wasn’t going to work as a short was 1) when the city was sued and it became clear that these monuments weren’t coming down anytime soon. And then 2), once contractors started leaving the job because they had been threatened and one alleged that his car was burned. It became kind of clear that like, okay, there is something darker and larger at play than people saying ignorant things on the street. It felt like, the reason for documentary is not to abandon comedy but for a longer type of storytelling and hopefully something that allows us to like dig deeper into, yeah, we’re gonna have to explain a lot of history to figure out how some of these folks became this misinformed about history.
What was the most surprising thing you learned while making the documentary?
CJ Hunt: I’m surprised at how many folks when you first ask them, they’ll first say this was about states’ rights. Or they’ll say, every major society has had slavery. Or we got to take the good, bad and the ugly, it’s history—we can’t change what happened. That’s what folks will say at first. But if you give them enough time, couple of minutes, they’ll almost always land on the same speaking point, which is, but also slavery wasn’t that bad. That was genuinely surprising. I grew up in the north in New England and New York so I understood that there was a different understanding of the war amongst some white Southerners. I did not understand the prevalence of how many people believe and feel comfortable saying out loud that slavery was not that bad.
CJ Hunt: Had you heard that before the film?
I grew up in Kentucky before the improv bug bit me and I moved to Chicago.
CJ Hunt: Hey! You’re in Chicago now?
Yeah. You can’t tell from my background.
CJ Hunt: No, no. But for a while, I wanted to go do improv in Chicago. I hope the schools that you are in or stages that you’re performing are still open. I know there’s been a big hit nationwide on that.
Yeah. Well, I moved here for improv, studied for a year at Second City. The economy crashed and then it was back home to Louisville. I later came out as trans moved back to Chicago, and weirdly became a film critic along the way.
CJ Hunt: Hey, well, great. Great. But sorry, I interrupted you. You were saying before you had gotten bitten by the improv bug, you were—
Yeah, I grew up in Kentucky. We were a border state even though my family came over from Europe well after the Civil War.
CJ Hunt: So did you grow up with the states’ rights story?
It has been a long time but I’m one of those that was raised to know that slavery is bad. That’s really what the Civil War came down to.
CJ Hunt: Even the fact that we have to phrase it like that is sort of the height of absurdity that we are trying to capture in the film. You just told me, “I was one of those raised to believe that slavery was bad.” The idea that there are some folks who are raised to believe that slavery is not bad is insane. For me, comedy is the language that we use to clarify what is absurd and a lot of that absurdity is really horrifying. There is also something about it that when you when you are able to point a camera and show that folks—beyond their polite arguments about history—fundamentally believe that slavery was pretty good and was free medical care. That is something that I wanted us to have on film and for us to really remember about this moment and about the depth of the lie that America tells about the Confederacy, and the lie that has sort of been baked in about America’s past.
How scary was it to be in Charlottesville when all of that was going down in August 2017?
CJ Hunt: On a scale of what to what? One to Oh, fuck or what’s the scale?
I didn’t really think of a scale when I wrote that question.
CJ Hunt: I’m a metrics guy. The non-metric based answer is I was very scared. It’s the most scared I’ve ever been in my life but I was also really lucky that there were some folks who paid with their lives. Heather Heyer died and was murdered at Charlottesville. There are folks were put into a coma because they were beaten by white supremacists. I was very scared. I was very lucky. I think that when folks watch the film, what they might think is Oh, boy, CJ was scared because he’s afraid he might get hurt there. I think the terror I was feeling is actually much larger and much more existential of that wasn’t just like a fringe group of randos. Those men and boys marched on stopped through UVA’s campus and then were able to exact violence in the night and then were able to come back the next day. It’s not like Charlottesville didn’t know what happened on the night of the 12th.They knew what happened and still, police stood by and let white supremacists marched through, take up space, beat people in broad daylight. It’s not just that white supremacy is out but that white supremacy is on the ascendancy and feels power and, is chanting Whose Streets as if they own this. We know from the summer of 2020—we’ve seen that when you know 20 Black people want to march to Union Square, police figure out a way to keep that from happening and put up barricades and say, Oh sorry, you’re not allowed to assemble here. The control of Black bodies that we saw in 2020 is a horror show when you then look at how little control the police even put around these white supremacists who on that day murdered folks.
How did the experience change how you approached the film?
CJ Hunt: As I said, in the film, I thought that the ending of our film was likely going to be the takedown of the monuments in New Orleans, which happened in May 2017. Charlottesville happened just a few months after in August so that made it impossible to end the film with a feel-good story of how the people of New Orleans were able to force the city to do what white supremacists would not let them do. That’s a very clean arc of the triumph of the people over white supremacy and over the institution. Finally, we got Lee down, let’s party! The sort of horror and a new level of alertness that we were in after Charlottesville of actually seeing white terrorists take lives again, I think made the ending of the film a lot messier. You end this film and I hope you feel really powerful but I think there’s an undercurrent of fear and how afraid we should be of the growth of white supremacy and America’s tolerance for violence on Black bodies, whether that’s done by white supremacists just with or without a badge. I think the ending of this film now is a paradox, which I think is right for how we should feel about white supremacy in America.
As sad as the George Floyd tragedy was, it led to that entire conversation about statues in general. Did you see that conversation coming out of the blue?
CJ Hunt: I didn’t see it coming out of the blue because we had followed it. We’ve been following it since winter of 2015. I think it’s important to remember in these conversations that Black people have always found these statues troubling and strange. In the 1870s, you have Frederick Douglass writing about the fundraising for the Lee monument and being like, What the hell is happening? We must hold the South accountable. Frederick Douglass says, There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, and we must make treason odious. He is panicking because he’s seeing the North forgiving the South and allowing them not only to become governors and mayors but to put up these monuments. Frederick Douglass—at the time, we think of him as an abolitionist but he was also like, guys, how the hell are we allowing them to build monuments to these traitors that just tore a country apart? When the Lee monument was unveiled in 1890 in Richmond, the Black reporters in Richmond were like, What even is this? We put these statues up and the Black men will be there when it’s time to take them down. In New Orleans, folks have been marching and creating action around these since the 1970s.
I think that for the rest of America and for white America, it’s like, wow, this statue issue, this really just bubbled up. But this has been there. I think what the change is when white violence is egregious enough and has enough attention: the Charleston massacre, Charlottesville, the lynching of George Floyd. When white supremacy violence is in our faces and on our front page enough, finally, then this door opens where the rest of the nation can suddenly see what Black and Brown people have been talking about for decades. So it was not surprising. It’s on a long tradition. But what truly was surprising was that no one was trying to file petitions or talk to the city council or ask permission for those statues to come down after the murder of George Floyd. They were just taking them down and I think that’s a big shift. We are past the point of permission. Localities understand that if they do not move these and if they do not attempt to contextualize them and move them out of spaces (inaudible), the Black and Brown and queer and Indigenous folks who live there will not let those stand uncontested. The idea that we are now past asking for permission, I think, is a good thing.
How did you balance your time as a field producer for The Daily Show and this film?
CJ Hunt: I don’t know if this film could have gotten made if it was not for The Daily Show. When the film starts, I’m just a wannabe Daily Show employee. But pretty quickly, I was able to land a job in late night and then come to The Daily Show. The Daily Show, to me, is an institution. It is the comedy institution in America that has been short of turning tragedy, absurdity, and hypocrisy into comedy for the longest. I feel really lucky to be at that institution. It feels like being at grad school at Harvard. I get to watch folks like Roy Wood Jr., Desi Lydic, Dulcé Sloane, and Jordan Klepper. I get to watch those people, who are the best in the country, out in the field. Being behind the camera was just an incredible learning opportunity to just see how fearless Ronny Chieng is when he sits down with someone powerful, how Jordan will place himself in the middle of the lion’s den, or how Roy Wood Jr. has this incredible empathy. I feel like I’ve been at grad school being able to study under the greats.
In terms of being actually able to make the film, The Daily Show also gave me really wide latitude in being like—last summer when shit was really hitting the fan, they were like, hey, go make your film. They gave me three months to just go finish the film go be at whatever protests you need to because we understand how important this is. They’ve shaped both my understanding of comedy and my literal ability to make the film. The idea that someone I was watching and admiring in 2015—Roy Wood Jr.—is now my partner and executive producer on this film, it feels it feels really right.
That’s amazing! I don’t know many employers that would just let their employees go off for a few months to make a film especially when it’s not the hiatus.
CJ Hunt: Yeah. It’s not maternity leave. It’s not something that we have context for but if you look at how many things every one of those Daily Show employees are making, Ronny Chieng is in movies, Roy Wood Jr. always has a new special, and Dulcé Sloane is in cartoons. Desi Lydic is off doing her own specials, Michael Costa is traveling the country doing stand-up, and Trevor is also doing stand-up. That it is a workplace, I think, where everyone is succeeding on all of these different projects and I think The Daily Show understands that your success and ability to make waves in the world means something for the show. The fact that they let me go do that, I’m incredibly grateful for it.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
CJ Hunt: Just hanging on to my soul and my sanity. There’s a lot of white supremacy in the film. We’re doing the voices of the secessionists as they are writing documents where they’re saying, This is about slavery. We’re doing that and we’re showing photos of people gathered at monument erections and lynchings. There is Charlottesville, there is the League of the South and the KKK coming to New Orleans, and then there is the police beating and killing people—there is just a lot of white supremacy in this film. It was really important for me to capture all of that and show the ways that those are related, to show the ways that the white North looked away from the racial violence that was happening in Reconstruction in the exact same way as a lot of folks now look away from the violence being exacted on Black bodies, and how common it is that we see a Black unarmed person executed by a law enforcement officer. We see that more common now than cat videos but our level of inaction, our level of myth, and our level of looking away from that, I wanted the film to clearly show how similar that is to the level of willful looking away that the white North was doing after the Civil War that allowed the Lost Cause to ground itself in stone and live in our little rural environment.
It would be unthinkable to us, the notion today, that the insurrectionists, who attacked the Capitol, would then be able to raise a couple hundred thousand dollars and build monuments to their heroic victory, right? That would be unthinkable to us. Even more unthinkable would be the notion that the random monuments that they make to our great victory against Nancy Pelosi’s office or when we had justice on Mike Pence, whatever weird narrative they have—when we stopped the steal. If they’d built a Stop the Steal statue, it would be unthinkable to us 1) that they would be able to build it and 2) the idea that it would sit there uncontested, unremoved for 130 years, and eventually people would forget that that’s just a weird version of the story and think that somehow we all owe with the reverence of our common history. You and I wouldn’t even be able to conceptualize of that but that is what defeated white Southerners did in the wake of the Civil War.
It still shocks me that they were able to breach the barricades on January 6 especially after what happened in the summer before.
CJ Hunt: Yeah. Black people aren’t even allowed to have a teach-in on a corner about police brutality but white supremacists with arm—motivated by a lie—are allowed to breach the Capitol. There’s been so much news and so many think pieces about how authorities knew that this would happen, how there was the chatter. I think the deeper reckoning with this idea is those men who breached the Capitol, if they were to look at the statues this country has built, they would have reason to believe that they are heroes and that they are on the right side of history. Right? We revere white militias who attack the government. New Orleans—in the film—has a monument to the White League, who was a white militia out to teach Blacks a lesson, who successfully attacked and overturned the state government, which was then seated in New Orleans, for three days. The President had to call in federal troops to get these white supremacists to leave the State House in New Orleans. Those people got a monument as you know from the film. They wrote white supremacy on that monument, as you know from the film, and when the city tried to put it away, who sued to get it back but David Duke. This is the story we tell on the landscape. It is a story that puts up on the pedestal white men who attack the government. Even secessionists in 1861 are ike, we are like our forefathers—our forefathers threw off an old government and took up arms and that is what we are doing.
I want people to leave this film shaking their head at the absurdities of the Confederacy. I will have failed and the film will have failed if they are not also thinking about the insane ways that we tell the story of our history in America and the wide latitude that we give to white men with guns who are killing people.
I think you just answered my next question, which is what do you hope people take away from the film?
CJ Hunt: Jason Williams, who is the City Council member and City Council president in this film, has a quote that didn’t make the film that says, “Look, if you are a white man in New Orleans, who grew up in the 70s and you have memories of coming to the Robert E. Lee monument, I hope that now as you’re seeing what is happening in the name of the Confederacy, what you are seeing of folks uprising in the street, I hope you are now just able to realize, huh, I guess my context was off.”
I hope the film grants everyone that grace. I have empathy for folks who grew up with a lie. I grew up in Massachusetts, where people are like, Let’s go to Plymouth Plantation. Oh, we love the pilgrims. Remember, when Columbus discovered this place? Remember when the pilgrims like got along with the Indians and never really mentioned how many Native Americans they slaughtered? We all grow up with some weird lie that is passed off to us as history. I don’t think the question is are you damned for growing up with that lie? I think the question is do you have the courage, when you realize that’s a lie, to face that and to really reckon with that? I hope our film gives people the space and grace to realize that their context is off and be courageous in this moment. I also hope we realize that if those folks cannot make the jump, it is not our job to talk to them. It is not our job to go into the living rooms of white supremacists. It is not our job on the local news to be like, But not everyone wants to take this statue down. Here’s an old white man and a tweed jacket talking about his ancestors.
We are not going to get change by trying to speak to and ship the opinions of bigots. We will get change by moving in power that has nothing to do with them by getting the right books in schools, by fighting and making sure that these insane Republican lawmakers aren’t able to pass laws that teach our kids less history. I think now is a moment where we are not asking permission and we are not trying to sway the other side. We’re moving in power to protect Black and Brown people and make sure that children of all colors get to actually learn about history and have the tools to critically understand the conflicts that still make it possible that people are in the streets and we see videos of Black men dying all the time.