In today’s increasingly polarized America, racial tensions are easily stoked. Although an African-American has been in the White House for going on eight years, American politics are anything but post-racial. This is a country that a century and a half ago experienced one of the most murderous civil wars in history fought on the issue of slavery. Stories from that period continue to have a strong resonance when brought to the big screen. Steven Spielberg’s stately Lincoln (2012) was followed by Steve McQueen’s raw and wrenching 12 Years a Slave awarded the 2014 best picture Oscar. The latter brought to life lesser-known historical events. In a similar vein, an 1830s slave revolt is the subject of the Sundance festival sensation The Birth of a Nation by another black filmmaker, Nate Parker, with a theatrical release scheduled for October.
Now playing is director and co-writer Gary Ross’s epic Free State of Jones about a remarkable Civil War-era episode that has been nearly lost to history. The central figure is white Southerner Newton (Newt) Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Mississippi farmer and Confederate soldier who deserted and in 1863-65 led a fierce rebellion of poor whites and blacks against the Confederate government. Getting the story made was a decade-long passion project for Ross involving intensive research into the background of this controversial and complex character. As noted by Mississippi historian Jim Kelly (one of many expert consultants listed in the credits): “The facts have been buried so deep and spun in so many ways that generations knew very little about what really happened.”
The movie opens in October 1862 amid graphic scenes of battlefield slaughter with Knight as a nurse tending to the wounded and dying. The soldiers grumble about perceived injustices. To wage the war the Confederacy was imposing onerous tax burdens and confiscations on their farms. Another grievance was the “Twenty Negro Law” by which large plantation owners and family members with 20 or more slaves were being exempted from military service. The conscripted poor man was doing most of the fighting to uphold the privileges of the rich, being asked to die for their honour and their cotton.
When a terrified boy soldier, a nephew of Knight’s named Daniel (Jacob Lofland), is shot and killed, Knight decides to desert and take the body back to his family farm. He protects the household, a mother with three little girls, in an armed standoff with a Confederate military posse led by a Lt. Barbour (Bill Tangradi). Knight briefly returns to his own farm, wife Serena (Keri Russell) and baby son, knowing he is wanted for treason. While there the infant falls seriously ill and, unable to summon a doctor, a young “house negro” named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) from a nearby plantation enters the picture, secretly called upon to cure the child. When Knight becomes an injured fugitive, he is led to take refuge in dense swampland. Rachel comes again, guiding him to a group of runaway slaves that she is helping.
It’s here that the resistance begins to take shape. Knight frees one of the escaped men, Moses (Mahershala Ali), from a ghastly spiked iron collar. Guns are smuggled in. The numbers hiding out grow through 1863 as defeats provoke desertions from Confederate ranks. These outlaws will form a sizeable guerilla band, a “Knight company,” able to thwart confiscations and harass Confederate troops. Under orders from senior commander Col. Elias Hood (Thomas Francis Murphy), retaliations are severe, terrorizing the rural population and burning farms.
Offers are made of clemency for anyone who surrenders, enough to lure a handful, mostly boys, out into the open. Instead they are summarily hanged, setting the stage for one of the film’s most stirring scenes. The Confederate commander has troops lined up watching as a procession of grieving women in mourning black accompany wooden caskets to a church. The intent backfires spectacularly in a shootout. Knight’s strong Christian faith does not prevent him from delivering the coup de grace to the wounded colonel inside the church.
This is a deadly, at times ruthless, struggle in which women and girls too play their part, including as shooters. And it is a class as well as mixed-race struggle. As Nancy Isenberg observes in a new book White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America, poor whites of the time had no love for the slave-owning elites.
The uprising spreads, taking over a town and the plantation of Rachel’s masters. Knight will permit no discrimination. In control of Jones and several adjacent counties in southeast Mississippi, the stars and stripes replace the Confederate flag. But when a plea for assistance to Union General Sherman is rebuffed, it seems no country wants the insurgents. Knight then proclaims a “free state of Jones” with socio-economic and racial equality as foundational principles.
The narrative loses some steam as Ross extends it through a succession of events to 1876 — the Emancipation Proclamation, the Union victory, the Reconstruction, the return of white masters and racist laws, the continued oppression of blacks despite a constitutional amendment granting them the right to vote and the courageous efforts of freed men like Moses. The violations and violence are underscored by a gruesome lynching and the rampages of the Ku Klux Klan.
Knight returned to farming after the war, living openly and having children with Rachel, whom he had taught to read in the swamps. His wife Serena, who had fled with the baby in 1863, returned several years later and took shelter with them, apparently accepting a situation that must have shocked most good Southern white folk. Through occasional flash forwards, the movie somewhat awkwardly introduces how “85 years later” laws against inter-racial marriage were invoked in a 1949 Mississippi court case against a great grandson, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), who had married a white woman. Accused of being mixed-race, he was sentenced to five years in prison for the crime of “miscegenation” (interbreeding of the races). Although that conviction was overturned on appeal, it drew attention to Rachel’s role, which the official historical record had suppressed.
Both Matthew McConaughey as Knight and Gugu Mbatha-Raw deliver very fine convincing performances in the central roles. The attention to period detail is impressive as is the cinematography (shot in Louisiana) and the restrained musical score. Ross, who directed The Hunger Games trilogy, is aiming for something much more significant with this effort.
Whatever its narrative flaws, Free State of Jones tells an important story. In Ross’s words: “Newt Knight makes sense of the American Civil War at its essence, which is that it was fundamentally a moral struggle. He was such a progressive forward-looking individual and totally unique in his own era. I wanted to tell the story to illustrate the fact that the South was not entirely unified in its support of the Confederacy or slavery.” Texas native McConaughey admires the moral stand taken by Knight as a man “who lived by the Bible and the shotgun. He bowed to no one’s authority but God’s. He understood that he couldn’t be free as long as anyone else was enslaved. . . . If he saw something wrong he had to make it right and damn the consequences.” He adds a personal reason for embracing the role of Knight: “I’m a Southerner, and to fellow Southerners like myself Newt repudiates the stereotype that all Southerners are, or were, racists.”
In every era, there are individuals who stand against oppression and intolerance. They should not be forgotten.