Starting in 2015 with the city of New Orleans grappling with history and the edification of Confederate figures in public spaces, multi-hyphenate comedian CJ Hunt‘s (The Daily Show, The Rundown with Robin Thede) new documentary The Neutral Ground takes on a whole new light in the aftermath of the death of numerous Black people at the hands of police, the BLM movement and the racial reckoning in America in the years since. What started as a short internet video about the removal of statues, the film quickly grew into something much more profound as the movement to remove statues — and the pushback — spread across the country. Blending his humor with his innate curiosity, Hunt turns a mirror on America’s absurd relationship with race and romanticizing the past.
We Live Entertainment recently got the opportunity to chat with CJ Hunt during the 2021 AFI Docs.
LV Taylor (We Live Entertainment): Let me just start by saying that as someone who was born and spent the majority of their formative years in the South, this film definitely hit home for me. I saw a lot of people in it that I recognize or knew from my past. And I really thought that it was very well done, so thank you for that.
CJ Hunt: Thank you. That means a lot because I was not born in the South — our whole crew is Southern and lives there same as our executive producer (Roy Woods, Jr.) — but I wanted to be able to speak clearly enough about white supremacy and the overlaps between what is national white supremacist culture and how those are linked to the lives of white defeated ex-Confederates. But I’m respectful of that fact and try to be respectful of it because it’s a place I’m not from, and the fact that it means something to you — thank you.
LV: I know when you started this project, it was supposed to be a short satirical video for the internet. But eventually, at some point, it kind of changed. What was it that made you see that this needed to be a much longer and larger story?
CJ: I think the root of my comedy is around three words — “Isn’t this strange?” I’m not saying that out loud, but when you make a comedy about a losing army that somehow still has 1000s of statues and somehow still controls our politics and the leaders of this rebellion are enshrined in the Capitol — it’s strange. We are having to talk about whether it’s okay to still have Jefferson Davis in the Capitol building — for me, that is an emotion that either makes me want to go crazy…or makes me want to make comedy. When this story was starting in 2015, to me, it felt right to be like, isn’t this strange that these white New Orleanians — who said nothing when entire neighborhoods were being put on trucks and moved for the hospitals — that all of a sudden they’re like ‘Wait, you want to move Robert E. Lee across town and put him in a museum — our history!’
To me, that is strange, so I was like, let’s go. And as the story continued, it was like, yes, we can say isn’t it strange that the city council did a democratic process, decided what they’re going to do, and now white supremacy is holding them up. Isn’t it strange that we can’t even get a contractor to agree to do this because they’re getting death threats in the night? But as that strangeness starts to ratchet up — as white supremacy gets worse and worse and worse — you need less of a language to say, ‘isn’t this strange’ because that is apparent. It was a slow process, it wasn’t all of a sudden like ‘oh, the car was bombed’ but more like 1) these monuments aren’t coming down anytime soon, and 2) this story is getting so big and so dark that I think we have to start asking some deeper questions rather than just dunking on a few people who are willing to say out loud that slavery wasn’t that bad. The deeper question was, ‘how did so many people come to believe that slavery is not that bad?’ That takes a documentary.
LV: Going off of what you just said, there’s one point in the film where you were speaking to a gentleman about slavery, and he pushes back and says, ‘Well, how do you know that they didn’t get paid?’ How do you keep your composure and keep a straight face when you’re in situations like that?
CJ: That comment really undid me. It really made me question my process because, you know, ‘LV, what if those slaves were paid?’ It made me think, why am I making this movie — if it turns out slaves were paid, my god, what am I doing…what did I just spend six years doing? They never told us in school that these slaves might have been paid money. Why was it called slavery if we were getting a check? It undid me. I’m kidding! It didn’t undo me at all. It was par for the course, in terms of the crazy things I’ve heard in this film. And I think that as a comedian, it’s hard being a comedian learning how to be a documentarian.
This is my first film. Do you point the mic back to them and go, ‘you’re dumb, thank you.’ Do you dig into the joke and go ‘great and how much do you think that they were paying? Do we have a minimum wage here?’ Is that joke even appropriate there, or does the documentarian come in and just let it sit? Just let the insane thing that they said sit — that was the hardest thing to do in the film, to learn that we don’t need to dunk on a white supremacist every time, but if you construct a film properly and have enough history, and let folks say what they want to say, the entire film becomes a dunk on this 150-year-old line.
LV: With that being said, have you heard any feedback from any of the individuals who are in the film? Have any of them seen it yet?
CJ: I’ve heard feedback from many individuals in the film who are not trying to keep statues. I have not heard much from the folks who are trying to keep statues, but I suspect that we will hear from them as the film rolls out, you know, come July 5. It is free everywhere in the country that has a TV on PBS. So I think we will hear from those folks, and we will hear from folks who still want to hold on to that lie because it’s been built into who they believe they are.
LV: When you first started filming in 2015, did you sense that this movement would go the way it did. A lot has happened in the past four or so years — did you think that we would have such a racial reckoning? Did it feel like you were at the beginning of something so big?
CJ: We did not know everything that was coming when we started rolling cameras in the winter of 2015. We thought that Hillary Clinton was going to become our president. Right, remember this? Remember this time when we’re coming off the second term of a black president, and we think Hillary Clinton is going to be the president. And that the Joker who’s gambled his entire presidency on white supremacy is going to lose in an epic landslide — remember that? That’s when we started filming this.
So, we thought that we were in power when we started. We did not know that Trump was going to be elected…we did not know that Charlottesville was coming and that white supremacists were going to use terrorist tactics to kill people in the streets. We did not know that insurrectionists would attack the Capitol using the banner of the Confederacy and that the GOP would then try to excuse them and hope that we would all just forget about it and tell us that what we saw with our own eyes wasn’t what actually happened. So we didn’t know any of those things. But I did sense that this thing about the Confederacy is a scab and that the scab was being picked — you know, scab isn’t even the right word. Confederate symbols are a pus-filled boil that the country has just let expand and expand and never really sought medical attention for because they’re like if you lance this boil, who knows what may come out — who knows how deep the infection may go.
I think those of us who are black and brown and progressives and queer folks are like, ‘so you’re just going to let the boil get worse? They’re just going to let the boil poison all of us. Don’t you want to get in there and root out all the toxic stuff that is in there?’ So we didn’t know it would get this big, but we knew it was toxic and was only growing.
LV: Speaking of the narrative of the Confederacy and how that sprang up after the Civil War, how do you think history and people will look back 100 years from now on this time period that we are in?
CJ: I think what is really useful and enriching to audiences when they watch this film is how they can view our present moment as this mirror of what was happening in the Civil War. In our time, we have seen a big lie be born. We have seen, in the last couple of years, a big disinformation campaign that tells us ‘what you saw with your eyes did not actually happen…early voting is actually voter fraud…this historic loss was actually a landslide…they’re not insurrectionists, they’re actually, in a certain light, patriots and they weren’t attacking the government, they were just exercising their freedom.’ Does that story sound familiar? That is the story that white southerners began writing after the Civil War.
In 1860-1861, southerners were asking for a bigger federal government — they weren’t like, ‘get the federal government out of our lives,’ they were going to DC asking for a bigger federal government that would hunt down their slaves and return them…that would break Massachusetts’ state’s rights and force Massachusetts and Rhode Island and New York to return their slaves. If you look at any of the founding documents of the Confederacy — just search these on a helpful website called Google — just type in ‘succession documents,’ or if you want to get more specific ‘Declarations of Causes,’ — because they view themselves as the founding fathers of a new nation, so you bet they wrote down their own declarations of independence state by state. In every one of these things, the first thing they mention — the majority of the things they’re talking about — is slaves, slaves, slaves. Let us keep our slaves. They keep using the phrase, ‘we have a state’s right to slaves as property — our state’s right, our constitutional right to slaves as property. And after the war, they were like, ‘this is such a bad look. Let’s take off the whole slaves as property thing and just say state’s rights.’ ‘Which rights?’ ‘No, no, no just in general, something about the federal government.’ The one you were asking to return your slaves? ‘No, no, we don’t like the federal government, its states’ rights in general.
LV: (laughing) Right. So for my final question…
CJ: You’re laughing because it’s horrifying, and it’s hilarious at the same time. We know from the Trump presidency that something can be both dumb and dangerous, and I think that that’s the line that film was talking about — ‘I can’t believe you believe this. I can’t believe you were saying this out loud.’ Let’s investigate how deep that lie goes to make all of you this misinformed.
LV: Exactly. So final question — why do you think comedians and satire are so well equipped to tackle social issues and all the other problems that plague our society?
CJ: I think what we crave is language. We need language for the problems that face us. If you just think about it in the sense of when somebody says something really racist to me, I’m almost always out of words — like a microaggression in the office or something that a police officer does. There’s something that someone writes on Facebook and only the next day am I like, ‘oh, I should have said this…’ I think comedy is so helpful because it gives us a new language for the absurdities of racism in America. We’ve been getting a lot of great press for the film, and I appreciate it, but many white reviewers are like, ‘how could you possibly make comedy out of tragedy?’ But I think black and brown people understand — that is one of our oldest languages for dealing with tragedy and for showing a mirror back. America, this is what you look like — you stay talking about slavery, your boil is rotting and poisoning your body, and you’re like, ‘it’s fine, I’m fine….there’s no problem here at all.’ So I think that comedy is both trying to give the black and brown communities who are victims of white supremacy power and a little bit of respite from it.
But for those invested in it — knowing or not knowing — comedy is a way to give the language of ‘this is how invested you still are.’ You, New York, made the Robert E. Lee monument. L.A. made Gone with the Wind. Birth of a Nation was not shot in the south. It was shot on a soundstage on a back lock in LA. New York, where I am calling you from, after a year where over 100 monuments have been taken down, and Columbus statues have been beheaded and thrown into the water in multiple cities, New York blocks from me still have one of the largest Columbus monuments in the country. Comedy is to be like, ‘this is what you look like…this is how invested you still are, in America. Isn’t that strange?’
LV: Very well said. Well, thank you again for taking the time to speak to me today, definitely appreciate it!
CJ: Yeah, it’s been wonderful talking to you. Thank you for finding the film and for seeing what we’re trying to do.
LV: Yeah, I can’t wait until it comes on TV so I can watch it again!
CJ: And I love that it’s free! You know many films have a long festival process, and you might be able to catch us in Idaho… No, on July 5th, everyone who has a TV — or their mom’s password for their TV service — we’re going to be on PBS 9:30 July 5th for free. We’ll see you there, and you can follow us on all the socials @itsnotneutral. Thank you.