“The Neutral Ground” on PBS’s POV dives into the infinitely complex issue of Southerners’ varying perspectives on race, confronting the past, and moving forward in the future. The filmmaker CJ Hunt focuses most of the hour-long documentary on efforts in New Orleans to remove prominently place Confederate memorials, as well as counter-efforts to stop their removal, but it also leaves the Crescent City and makes brief forays into this issue’s manifestations in other places.
Though it is contentious, the issue of Confederate monument is necessary to address publicly. In the documentary, we see snippets of public commentary about the proposed removal during a city council meeting, and they are anything but amiable. Those debates led to years-long court fights and delays before the eventual removal. Along the way, we meet Hunt’s father, who is African American, and hear him speak forcefully about racism and its effects. Across the spectrum, Hunt also goes to the now-infamous Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where white supremacists and counterprotestors fight in the streets, and to a Civil War re-enactment, where a small group of older white men share their camp and their ideas with him.
As the editor of a project on beliefs, myths, and narratives, I watched “The Neutral Ground” with a particular interest in seeing people’s reactions when their deeply held beliefs – mythic beliefs – were challenged. Hunt did a good job of presenting the facts of the Lost Cause myth, its raison d’être, and the roles of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and Civil Rights-era segregationists in memorializing their crafted narrative of Southern history. By contrast, we also encounter the modern counter-narrative that is replacing the Lost Cause myth with a more fact-based version of events. Its supporters also work to do what the Lost Cause folks did: coalesce an extremely complex array of factors into nuggets that are easily digestible by the general public. Personally, I see the Lost Cause and Neo-Confederate sentiments fading into obscurity, their monuments being relegated to museums, and their supporters losing this war of hearts and minds . . . though, I don’t see the mythology being completely stamped out, instead existing as folklore in conversations held around dinner tables, campfires, and truck beds, mostly in the South.
Read more posts from Groundwork, the editor’s blog,