When I saw the first trailer for Free State of Jones, I knew I was not going to like it. White guy leads rebellion of poor whites and runaway blacks in the Civil War? I expected another white-savior movie where the hero gets the post-racial bonus prize of the black girlfriend or wife for his efforts. Did seeing the film change my initial apprehensions? Yes and no.
Free State of Jones is a good, but not great, film. It does an excellent job of laying out an amazing true story and offers some excellent acting and a few interesting action scenes. Most importantly, it succeeds at giving black folks some agency in their own liberation. Unfortunately, the movie lacks the courage to depict the complexities and contradictions that made this incredible Civil War rebellion possible.
Free State of Jones drops you into 1862 during a bloody battle between Union and Confederate soldiers in Mississippi. Newt Knight, a Confederate solider (played by Matthew McConaughey), works feverishly as a field nurse, patching together what’s left of soldiers in a battle field caked in blood. Director Garry Ross doesn’t cheat you with voice-overs, some Basil Exposition character or an opening crawl. Instead, Free State of Jones organically lays out the reasons that drive Newt to his eventual rebellion against the Confederacy.
The Civil War Is “a Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight”
The catalyst for the Knight rebellion is a combination of class and race that simmers under the surface of every interaction in the film. First, the “20 Negro Rule” was passed by the Confederacy, exempting the eldest sons of families with 20 or more slaves (i.e., rich folks) from military service. (Up North, rich people used the Enrollment Act of 1863, under which you could pay someone to take your place in the Army. Lincoln actually used this.) Second, the farmers in the South were being routinely raided for supplies by the Confederacy, meaning that many conscripted soldiers returned home to find that their wives and children were destitute or, worse, had died of starvation.
Fed up with the Civil War and fearing for the safety of his newborn son and wife, Serena (played by Keri Russell), Newt goes home and starts a ruckus. He trains women to fight off Confederate troops, which makes him a deserter and an outlaw. Serena, who was not about that outlaw-wife life, flees Jones County. Newt starts a rebel army in the swamps with the help of other Confederate deserters, house slave Rachel (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and runaway slave Moses (Mahershala Ali).
“Captain Knight” gives his rebels some incredibly rousing classic McConaughey speeches about how poor whites and blacks are both “n—gers” and face similar oppression. It’s a seductive message for today’s audience, almost like a Bernie Sanders rally on income inequality. However, the film fails to make it clear exactly where Newton Knight’s beliefs stem from. Is he a Civil War-era Tyler Durden, just looking out for the little guy? Or is he a hot-headed libertarian who wants to be left alone? Free State of Jones never fully explores those questions. This despite the fact that the film covers Newt Knight’s legacy from the battlefield, to the Reconstruction ballot box, all the way up to the Mississippi Supreme Court in the 1950s. It’s an ambitious story that falls just short of greatness.
Maybe Knight Was Progressive by 1860s Standards; Not So Much by Today’s
No period piece can cover everything. Events are streamlined, composite characters are created and timelines are fudged (although, to its credit, Free State of Jones has an accompanying website, which included historical footnotes). Consequently, Free State of Jones teaches us about Newt’s character and politics mostly through his romantic relationships. Free State wants us to see Newt Knight as a progressive man on gender; he trains women to defend themselves and allows his "first" wife and son to return to the family farm even after he’s taken up with Rachel as his common-law wife and had a child with her. We are also to believe he is a racially progressive man, teaching Rachel to read and ceding his land to her because he could not legally marry a black woman. Relative to other men at the time, Newt Knight wasn’t just progressive, he was radical, but that isn’t close to the complete story.
The truth is that Rachel wasn’t just any slave woman. She was owned by Knight’s father and bore children by his brother and possibly his father before he wifed her. Also, while Newt did take on a black wife, a scandalous act at the time, his sense of ownership over black women’s bodies wasn’t that far out of step with the times. He began a sexual relationship with Rachel’s eldest daughter (who was possibly his niece) and had children by both.
It is true that Newt allowed his wife and son to come back to the family farm (a key element in a side story that takes his legacy up to a 1950s court case). However, he treated all the women under his charge like a typical slave owner. He continued to have sexual relations with his first wife, Rachel and Rachel’s daughter, and forced many of his children to intermarry to keep their skin light.
If Free State of Jones did not spend so much time reminding us what a great guy Newt Knight was through his relationships, his marital peculiarities wouldn’t matter. But it did, and they do. Showing the audience that Newt Knight was a bigoted, inbred Mississippi bigamist by our 2016 standards would have in no way diminished how radical and progressive he was in 1867. The movie’s failure to do so cheapens what is otherwise a painstakingly accurate film.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.