August, 2021

Three questions with...
2020 Fellow CJ Hunt

Your Fellows project, the film The Neutral Ground, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in June and on POV on PBS last month. When did you first get the idea to make this documentary?

In 2015, I was living in New Orleans and publishing my first piece of satire: 5 Hot New Designs for the Confederate Flag. The article distilled my anger about lawmakers who—even in the wake of the Charleston Massacre—still thought removing the confederate flag from South Carolina’s capitol was something we needed to debate. When New Orleans city council announced they would vote on the removal of 4 confederate monuments in New Orleans, I wanted to make a comedy short reprising the satirical voice I used in 5 Hot New Designs to capture the absurdity of white New Orleaians willing to say OUT LOUD that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. We filmed for a full year before I realized the real takedown isn’t poking fun at misinformed people waving a confederate flag at the stoplight; it's investigating the century of propaganda designed to make those people so misinformed. For that, we’d need at least 82 minutes.

While the film is deeply moving, informative, and sometimes harrowing, it has a lot of lighter moments. Why did you think it was important to integrate humor into the film?

On one hand, I am putting sugar in the medicine. Throughout the writing and the edit, I asked myself: how do I keep skittish white audiences in their chair? The humor is partly meant to ease viewers’ anxiety about heading into a documentary that requires some deep reckoning and self-reflection. When people say “this movie is so accessible” I know that this is partly due to a few petty jokes about Alexander Stephens’s dry-ass lips. On the other hand, humor is the only language capable of expressing certain levels of horror and absurdity. When you’re watching this movie, there are times where you’ll witness something so horrific or ignorant that you say to yourself: I...have no words. When that happens to me, I often reach for humor.

You also incorporate personal elements into the film; interviews with your father and your own reflections. Did you always plan to be a character on screen?

I always planned to be on screen; I just had no idea what that requires in a documentary. In our earliest footage I was just mimicking the style of correspondents on late night comedies. I screened that footage for my friends at the BIPOC filmmaker collective Firelight Media, and they quickly informed me that the conventions of late night TV don’t work for documentary. Whereas late night correspondents are able to play a character, documentary audiences would expect me to reveal something true about myself. Even more daunting: apparently, movies require protagonists to change. With dread and frustration, I slowly accepted that I would have to learn to tell the truth about myself on screen, and we would have to film for long enough that—god willing—something in me changed. I frequently turned to my producer Darcy McKinnon and whined “So I just have to go to all these places, and feel messed up inside, and say aloud what I’m feeling, and that’s a movie?” Kindly, Darcy reminded me “yes, that’s a movie.”

Hot Off The Press

The State Must Provide

The definitive history of the pervasiveness of racial inequality in American higher education.

Publication date: August 10th.

Available for pre-order through our bookselling partner Solid State Books here.

By: Adam Harris, Class of 2021

Learn More

Two Cents

Fellows share whose writing on current events they admire most and why.

1: Ed Yong, for his coverage of the pandemic. — Yi-Ling Liu, Class of 2021

2: Adam Serwer so quickly injects thoughtful analysis into helping us understand the political world around us. — Caleb J. Gayle, Class of 2021

3: Rohini Mohan, who covers India with impossible courage, eloquence and rigor.
Molly Crabapple, Class of 2020


Trevor Aaronson's podcast American ISIS, which tells the story of a Pennsylvania man turned devout Muslim turned ISIS fighter, was released on July 15th. Trevor also wrote about his experiences researching this project for the Intercept

Adam Harris's forthcoming book, The State Must Provide, was included in LitHub's Most Anticipated Books of 2021 Part 2 and the New York Times's August list of books to watch for. 

Cecilia Aldarondo's documentary Landfall was reviewed in the New York Times as one of two PBS films that upend previous, two-dimensional portrayals of Puerto Rico. Cecilia also spoke to NY1 about the film.

Ted Johnson was interviewed in the Washington Post on how America can begin to overcome racism and his book When The Stars Begin to Fall

Annie Murphy Paul was interviewed on the Ezra Klein Show from the New York Times to discuss her book The Extended Mind, published earlier this summer. She was also interviewed about her book by Fast Company and shared some of her greatest takeaways from her research. 

Clint Smith's book, How The Word Is Passed, was included on Eqsuire's list of the 37 Best Books of 2021 (So Far).

Eve L. Ewing was interviewed on "The Ezra Klein Show" ahead of the release of her children's book Maya and the Robot. Her book was also reviewed by the New York Times

CJ Hunt's film The Neutral Ground was reviewed by the Guardian, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Golden Globe Awards. The film was featured in a review of BIPOC and social justice-focused films the 2021 AFI Docs. He also appeared on ABCNews Live and the National Endowment for the Arts podcast to discuss the documentary.

Sara Hendren wrote a piece for the New York Times about accessible urban design.

Bart Elmore was featured in an article by the Ohio State University College of Arts and Sciences about his new book, Seed Money, which chronicles how one St. Louis-based chemical firm continues to shape how all of us get our food.

Katie Engelhart was interviewed by Book Forum Magazine about her book The Inevitable

New America Events

The top New America events we recommend you check out. Now.



INSide Out: Youth-Led Policy in the Heartland, Session #3

Join New America Indianapolis and VOICES to hear from young leaders about gun violence and responses to it. Learn more


Adam Harris, The State Must Provide: Why America’s Colleges are Unequal — And How to Set Them Right

Join the Fellows Program and the Education Policy Program for a conversation with Adam Harris, Class of 2021, about his new book with 2020 New America Fellow and the Atlantic senior editor Van R. Newkirk II. Learn more

Reading this month

Kiese does what few can do in this revised, reissued novel: he gives us a demonstration of love, in its varied forms, in a setting so ornately depicted that it is nearly impossible to put down.
— Caleb J. Gayle,
Class of 2021

Learn More

It's hilarious and brilliant.
— Jonathan M. Katz,
Class of 2019

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Ravishingly written novel set in year one of Bolshevik Petrograd, as characters try to hold faith in a revolution while everything collapses around them.
— Molly Crabapple,
Class of 2020

Learn More

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