The film focuses on the removal of the Confederate Monument

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It has been seven years since a movement began to build in towns and cities across the United States to tear down Confederate monuments, honors and symbols of all kinds. People chained themselves to statues, spent cold nights in candlelight vigils, performed oral poems and testified at city council meetings.

Activists — young, old, often led by people of color but from across the demographic spectrum — have been ridiculed and hostile by political leaders at all levels. Many risked their lives as armed counter-protesters, some openly affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan and a wide range of hate groups, fomented violence, beating protesters, torching their vehicles and worse.

There doesn’t seem to be anything funny about this move.

But CJ Hunt, comedian, director and former producer of The daily showtook a trip into the world of people who worship Confederate monuments and came out of it saying, “Hey, at some point, you just gotta laugh.”

Laugh that is to say at the absurdity, the irony, the – well, the comedy of the powerful and entrenched trying so hard to deny a racially progressive future for the United States by laundering the past. Otherwise, Hunt challenges viewers in a deadly serious documentary, can you make sense of the sheer irrationality of a country’s reverence for a movement that literally sought to destroy it?

hunt movie, The neutral ground, was screened last month at the Civil Rights Memorial Center at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama. In its account of the intense backlash against New Orleans’ decision to demolish four of the city’s most significant Confederate monuments, the documentary is poignant, passionate, infuriating – and deeply absurd. In one segment, a modern-day Confederate re-enactor tells Hunt that “the majority of slaves” in the antebellum South “were not abused”.

In response, Hunt — himself black and Filipino — just stares at the camera, impassive.

“The role of comedy is to try to help show the absurdity, and we’re kind of at a point in this country where white backlash is at its highest,” Hunt said. “There is an element of absurdity there. And I try to use comedy to highlight that and make it really clear.

A former college professor, Hunt got into film in 2015 while still living in New Orleans. That year, in the midst of what was then characterized as a period of racial reckoning, the city council voted 6 to 1 to remove four prominent Confederate monuments. In the film, released last year on Juneteenth, Hunt tracks the ensuing backlash. It took two years for the statues to finally be removed.

Early in the film, haters of the removal of monuments argue that they should be maintained to “preserve history”, with the ugliness of the context given by the past. However, as the film progresses, the mood of the country changes, with the protests to keep the monuments in place taking on increasingly racist overtones. The film shows Hunt in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, witnessing the racist “Unite the Right” rally. There, when he looks into the camera as torch-bearing white nationalists march behind him, it’s not in disbelief, but in terror. The film ends in 2020 with footage of Confederate statues being removed across the country following the murder of George Floyd.

Over the past year, in what Hunt calls the ultimate irony, the backlash from a full US story has grown so intense that conservative governors and predominantly conservative legislatures have passed new laws sharply restricting discussions in schools about the history of race in It means that a classroom screening of Hunt’s film, which tackles the whitewashing of history, may itself violate laws in at least 14 states.

“The movie is really clear that Confederate monuments are primarily a problem because they require some type of amnesia about the past,” Hunt said. “My fear is what does that same amnesia look like when it’s enforced by law? Does it matter that the statue of [Confederate Gen. Robert E.] Lee is on Monument Avenue in Richmond if the Governor of Virginia is making it illegal for children to learn that Lee has openly stated that he believes black people are better off in slavery?

Amid these questions, two young activists joined Hunt at the Montgomery screening for a panel discussion on the film. The activists embody the courageous grassroots movements across the country demanding accountability for the shame that the monuments represent.

Unique Morgan Dunston, 25, led protests demanding the removal of two Confederacy monuments in rural Marshall County, Alabama. The peaceful protests have so angered the powers-that-be that the county council passed a resolution in their wake severely limiting demonstrations on the grounds where the monuments stand.

Courtney Symone Staton, 24, was a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill when she helped organize the movement that ended with the dismantling of the Confederate monument on campus known as the “Silent Sat”. Now a filmmaker and community organizer, Staton is also an impactful documentary producer.

“I think it’s revolutionary to laugh — for black people to laugh, especially,” Staton said. “Racism is ridiculous. The fact that we have to deal with racism is ridiculous, every element is ridiculous. It’s unfounded, it shouldn’t exist. It’s so ridiculous that it has to be disempowered by making fun of inconsistency. And that can unmask the solemn seriousness of what you are going through.

A Confederate monument and rebel battle flag fly outside the Marshall County Courthouse Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, in Albertville, Alabama. Unique Morgan Dunston, a transformed black woman leaving the virtually all-white town where she grew up, has been leading protests against the commemoration of the Old South since August. (Credit: Jay Reeves/AP Photo)

The SPLC has been at the forefront of this unmasking, since 2015, tracking the honor history of Confederate figures in a public database and supporting community efforts to remove these monuments and markers. In February, the SPLC stated in the latest edition of its report, Who owns the heritage? Public symbols of the Confederationthat 2,089 Confederate memorials could still be found across the United States and its territories.

SPLC data shows that most of the Confederate memorials were erected following reconstruction in the Jim Crow era, bolstering historians’ arguments that they were part of an organized propaganda campaign to promote ” lost cause” and revere the white supremacist values ​​of the Confederacy.

In addition to monuments, in the United States today, SPLC data shows that there are more than 740 roads honoring Confederates, more than 200 schools, and more than 100 counties and municipalities. Confederates are also honored with more than 50 buildings, more than 35 parks, seven commemorative license plates, and six bodies of water.

“SPLC’s work is foundational to this film and to all of this work,” Hunt said. “SPLC armed us with data, language, legal strategy. They bring the receipts.

In Marshall County, where Dunston lives, there has been little to no appetite among elected officials to remove monuments. The rural county, with a population of just 3% black, is also deeply conservative.

Dunston left home to attend college in Mobile, Alabama. Inspired by Colin Kaepernick, she organized black students at her university to sit during the national anthem at a football game to protest deadly police brutality. In 2020, she became a community activist, founding a nonprofit organization that champions racial and social justice. This year, she organized a food pantry for needy Marshall County residents. And she began leading a small group that peacefully demanded the removal of two monuments in separate county courthouses that honor Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Monuments are hardly heritage items. The Confederate monument that currently stands in front of the Marshall County Courthouse was erected in 1996 and moved to the courthouse in 2000. A Confederate flag was added to the site just five years ago.

Dunston says if there is an argument to be made for honoring ancestors, there is no place for such a monument on the grounds of a courthouse. She, Hunt and Staton share the view of the SPLC and other civil rights groups that Confederate monuments on public lands, erected as expressions of white supremacy, are in violation of the equal protection of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1868 to grant citizenship and equal rights to former slaves.

“The truth is, those ancestors fought to keep my ancestors enslaved,” Dunston said. “The place where we are going to hopefully receive justice, which is the courthouse, is not the place to honor them.”

Although the monuments still stand, Dunston said Hunt’s work, as well as that of the SPLC, gave him hope.

“Being around people who have the same goals as me gives me hope that the Marshall County monuments will fall,” Dunston said. “Even though I’m the first person to start plowing the ground and planting the seed, I believe that if necessary, there will be people after me who are ready to get back to work and do it.”

Top photo: Filmmaker CJ Hunt in the French Quarter. (Credit: Paavo Hanninen)

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