Documentary filmmaker CJ Hunt ’03 issued a direct challenge to Milton students this week: Live the school’s motto, “Dare to be true,” in real time while tackling the real and complicated issues of American history and injustice.
“What are the truths that we need to think about?” said Hunt, who screened his new documentary, The Neutral Ground, for students. “What are the stories that are buried, that we need to hear in this moment, in this country? I’m asking you to dare big. I’m asking you to make the motto real. Because when we dare to tell the truth, that daring is contagious, more contagious than a lie. The truth is out there, and it is just waiting for somebody courageous enough to dig it up. So go get your shovel.”
In The Neutral Ground, Hunt chronicles the years-long effort to remove four Confederate statues—of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard, and the Battle of Liberty Place—from places of prominence in New Orleans, a city where the majority of citizens are Black. Following a 6–1 vote by the city council in 2015 in favor of removing the monuments, contractors hired to perform the work were threatened, and protests erupted in the streets.
Hunt was living in New Orleans, where he had worked as a teacher and comedian. He set out to film some satirical videos about the issue. As the controversy and violence unfolded—and cities across the country began reckoning with their own monuments to slave owners, Confederate leaders, and colonizers—the documentary grew in scope and seriousness.
“What are the truths that we need to think about? What are the stories that are buried, that we need to hear in this moment, in this country? I’m asking you to dare big. I’m asking you to make the motto real. Because when we dare to tell the truth, that daring is contagious, more contagious than a lie. The truth is out there, and it is just waiting for somebody courageous enough to dig it up. So go get your shovel.””
– CJ Hunt ’03
In his film, Hunt spends time with Civil War reenactors and neo-Confederates as well as Black leaders and historians; he is also shown attending protests across the South, including the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Some of the white subjects he interviewed denied that the Civil War had anything to do with slavery, or that enslaved people were mistreated. A young man in Charlottesville claimed that yelling “white power” is, simply, “fun.”
That he was visiting and presenting his film on Veterans Day felt somewhat fitting, Hunt said.
“Part of the way that we honor veterans is to ask what freedom is made of,” he said. “Part of how we serve their legacy is to think deeply about the stories that we tell and the structures that we still hold up that keep freedom from being real for everybody in America.”
Hunt told students he was satisfied that the film doesn’t show him arguing white supremacists out of their positions. To do so would be too clean, and the true history of race in America is far too messy, he said.
“I think all of us, deep down, want our stories about race to be about reconciliation,” Hunt said. “We don’t want jagged-edged stories about reckoning and hard things that we cannot solve about the past.”
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t seek and spread the truth about the historic and present-day effects of slavery and inequality, he said. It just means that it will be uncomfortable.
“How do you learn about slavery without feeling uncomfortable?” Hunt said. “I don’t care what color your skin is, it’s literally the most uncomfortable thing that has ever happened. Education requires discomfort, a test, or a challenge.”