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The Civil War monumentalized; seeing the death penalty in action

CJ Hunt, in New Orleans' French Quarter, in "The Neutral Ground."
CJ Hunt, in New Orleans' French Quarter, in "The Neutral Ground."Paavo Hanninen

You’d be hard-pressed to find any other country where a seditious cause is celebrated by the display of its flag and the presence of countless monuments to its leaders and heroes. Why do symbols of the Confederacy still occupy public spaces and stir pride and rancor in so many people’s lives 156 years after its resounding defeat? CJ Hunt investigates this seeming anomaly in his often funny, and ultimately tragic, documentary “The Neutral Ground.”

Hunt begins his investigation in 2015, at a public hearing of the New Orleans city council debating whether or not to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee and three other Confederate monuments. “Why are we even talking about this?” says a Black woman. “These statues should have been down a long time ago. In fact, they shouldn’t have even been erected. The South lost!” A young Black man incredulously asks why the residents of a city that is over 60 percent Black should have to live with constant reminders of their oppression.

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The white opponents of the measure have difficulty avoiding racist statements when defending the statues and flags. A common argument is that the monuments are part of the country’s history. Should we go to Washington, D.C., and take down the monuments there? someone asks. A common canard is that the Civil War was not fought over slavery, but states’ rights. But some don’t try hard to conceal their true feelings. “First, I want to speak to the whole idea of oppression,” says one man. “Oppression is when a tourist comes to New Orleans . . . and gets his face kicked in by thugs.”

The motion passes. But the removal is delayed because of death threats and because no crane companies will rent out their services to do the job. Hunt begins a countdown of how many days pass while waiting for the removal order to be fulfilled and spends the time investigating other manifestations of Confederate fetishism and speaking with experts about the history behind it.

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His challenge, he says, is finding someone who genuinely believes in the myth of the lost cause and in the preservation of Confederate regalia and monuments who “doesn’t make me fear for my life.” It helps that Hunt, who is an African- and Filipino-American, is himself genial and unthreatening. A correspondent on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah,” he is no Michael Moore-like showboat and blowhard. In a stand-up routine he says, “All my material is . . . very Black but people look up and say, ‘Who is this fragile Mexican teenager?’”

So he travels to Richmond, Va., once capital of the Confederacy, which boasts a whole avenue of Confederate monuments, plus one statue of Arthur Ashe, the Black tennis champion, who grew up in the city. Gamely uniformed as a doomed Union soldier, Hunt visits with a pro-Confederate Civil War re-enactment event. His hosts are friendly, offer him a honey bun and a cup of coffee, and politely listen to his compilation of facts, including the words of the leaders of the Confederacy itself, proving that slavery was indeed the cause the South was fighting for. They smile, shake their heads, and deny it.

So why the lies about and reverence for the Lost Cause? In part, some of the experts interviewed explain, the reason is because it was lost. In a war in which hundreds of thousands died, the bloodiest conflict in US history, the losing side must hold onto some justification for so much loss. And then there is the loss of power, money, and status that the aftermath of war entails, the elevation by an abortive Reconstruction of Black people into equal citizens.

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That could not stand. So rights were violently quashed and history was re-written in schools and on the screen, in “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Gone with the Wind” (1939) and generations of other films, TV shows, and media, up to the present day.

For guidance on how to proceed, Hunt confers with his more cynical and radical father. He finds his dad’s negative opinions about the United States a little extreme — he recalls how his father appeared as speaker at his class in Milton Academy for Martin Luther King Day and told the white kids that at some time someone in their family probably had lynched someone.

“I had to shock you into thinking,” he says over his son’s objections. “To see what these white people have done to us.”

The more Hunt learns, the harder it becomes for him to disagree with such sentiments. Increasingly those in favor of the flags and monuments don’t try to conceal what really motivates them. By the time he gets to the Charlottesville, Va., Unite the Right rally in 2017, where he nervously mingles with throngs of tiki-torch-bearing white supremacists marching and chanting “Blood and soil!,” it seems like his father might be right.

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“One of the cool things about Confederate monuments,” Hunt says early in the film, “technically the only cool thing, is they give us a concrete way to talk about race.” One hopes that the time for talking hasn’t ended yet.

The Neutral Ground” broadcasts on July 5 at 9:30 p.m. on PBS’s “POV” series and begins streaming exclusively on pov.org through Aug. 4. Go to www.pbs.org/pov/watch/neutralground.

Two photographs of murder victim Wanda Lopez, as seen in "The Phantom."
Two photographs of murder victim Wanda Lopez, as seen in "The Phantom."Greenwich Entertainment

Capital offense

Back when he was governor of Texas, George W. Bush declared that the state had never executed an innocent person. Patrick Forbes’s engrossing and unsettling investigative documentary “The Phantom would seem to refute that claim.

The film begins in 1983, with the harrowing recording of a 911 call. Wanda Lopez, a cashier at a Corpus Christi, gas station, reports that a man with a knife is stalking her. Calmly she continues communicating with the operator and then starts screaming. She is found stabbed to death, the gas station splattered in blood.

Within hours police have their suspect — a 21-year-old Hispanic man, Carlos DeLuna. He is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death, based solely on spurious evidence. But even when offered life without parole he maintains his innocence, identifying someone he says is the real culprit, a person the police and prosecutors dismiss as a “phantom.”

With archival footage and often-dramatic interviews with those involved in the case, Forbes puts together a compelling, suspenseful true-crime story and a convincing argument against capital punishment.

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“The Phantom” is available for streaming on July 2 on Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, and iTunes. Go to https://greenwichentertainment.com/film/the-phantom.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.