Free State of Jones: The First Honest Movie about Reconstruction

"Free State of Jones" is genuinely bold filmmaking in its refusal to romanticize a the violence and terrorism of war and its aftermath.

Free State of Jones is genuinely bold filmmaking that refuses to romanticize the violence and terrorism of war and its aftermath.

Americans really love their Civil War. In the popular imagination, the Civil War is the nation’s trial by fire; that utterly necessary event that determined if a house divided against itself could rise from the ashes and prove to the world that a nation “of the people, by the people, for the people” could survive.

Yet beneath the mythology of reconciliation is the reality of a war that endured long after the armies laid down their guns. Strip away the mythology and you’re left with what historian Eric Foner calls America’s “Unfinished Revolution,” a revolution defined by violence, terrorism, and a string of broken promises that stifled the march of equality for generations. This “Unfinished Revolution” was Reconstruction, and the film Free State of Jones depicts Reconstruction’s brutal reality better than any previous popular treatment.

Free State of Jones opened in theaters on June 24, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should. The film tells the true story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a farmer from Jones County, Mississippi who enlisted in the Confederate army in July of 1861. He eventually deserts in 1862 and retreats to the swamps to avoid Confederate conscript agents. In the swamps, he forges an unlikely alliance with runaway black slaves. As more men from Jones County also desert the army, they join with Knight, who eventually leads an armed company of deserters, women, and runaway slaves. Under the mantle of the “Free State of Jones,” (a county that didn’t vote to secede from the Union in 1861), the Knight Company violently resists Confederate conscription and confiscation policies until the end of the war.

The film is based on the excellent book The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War by historian Victoria Bynum (you can read more of her writing about southern Unionism at her excellent blog, Renegade South). While the bulk of the story takes place during the Civil War, the film’s director, Gary Ross, follows Bynum’s research and carries the aftermath of Jones County’s inner civil war well into Reconstruction and beyond. This is the movie’s greatest strength. The themes at the core of the story — racial and class divisions, equality, and the role violence played in shaping U.S. history — predate the Civil War and molded the society that emerged in its aftermath.

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) tries to survive the Mississippi battlefield.

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) tries to survive the Mississippi battlefield.

As is the case with any Hollywood production, Ross takes artistic liberty with some of the historical nuances. What’s most impressive about this movie, however, is just how accurately Ross manages to depict the hell of war, the intertwining of race and class in the slaveholding South, and the bitter and brutal reality of Reconstruction.

The film opens with the October 1862 Battle of Corinth. Newt Knight is working as a medic in the Confederate army, a job that places him knee-deep in blood and bile. The movie holds nothing back in its depiction of the reality of Civil War combat: soldiers’ bodies litter the field, their heads caved in by mortar fire, while severed limbs dot the landscape like broken twigs. During the fight, Knight loses a young relative named Daniel to sniper fire. When fellow soldier Will Sumrall tries to tell Knight that Daniel “died with honor,” Knight wearily quips back, “no, Will, he just died.” This is sobering tonic for audiences familiar with Civil War battles via a popular culture soaked in banal flag-waving and bloodless reenactments that emphasize heroism and sacrifice over caved-in skulls and dead teenagers.

The catalyst for Knight’s and other Jones County men’s desertion from the army is the infamous “Twenty Negro Law” of October, 1862. Passed only months after the Confederate Conscription Act, the Twenty Negro Law exempted from military service owners of twenty or more slaves, the rationale being that slave owners would be better off at home quelling potential slave rebellion than they would be on the battlefield fighting Yankees. To non-slaveholders like Newt Knight, the odious Twenty Negro Law was blatant class privilege that epitomized the idea of a “Rich Man’s War, Poor Man’s Fight.”

The film explicitly depicts how the preservation of racial slavery was the defining reason for the Confederacy’s existence, yet it doesn’t lapse into a false narrative that identifies class-conflict as the sole source of Confederate division. It’s true that slaveholders started the war to protect their human property from northern “Black Republicans.” But it’s also true that plenty of slaveholders fought in the Rebel armies. Moreover, director Ross highlights the shared racial solidarity that bolstered widespread support for slavery in southern society.

In a scene in the swamps, a white member of the Knight company castigates a runaway slave named Moses Washington (Mahershala Alias) as a lowly “nigger,” only to be rebuked by Knight himself, who questions how a white man hiding in the swamp from Rebel authorities is really any different from a “nigger.” But this white guy was different, because he wasn’t black, and he wasn’t a slave. He likely even had dreams of someday owning slaves. Much like modern-day middle-class Americans, who aspire to enter the wealthy class via entrepreneurial pursuits, slave ownership was the gateway into upper-class southern society.

Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) hide out as runaway slaves in the Mississippi swamps.

Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) hide out as runaway slaves in the Mississippi swamps.

In addition, even the lowliest white person in the antebellum South could take comfort in a shared racial solidarity with the planter class that elevated all whites over enslaved “niggers.” More than a straightforward depiction of class warfare, Ross admirably addresses the symbiotic relationship between race and class that is so crucial to understanding southern history in particular, and American history in general. Racial solidarity drove thousands of non-slaveholders to fight for the Confederacy, but it was a fractured, tenuous solidarity threatened by the Old South’s vast inequalities in wealth and power.

This brings us to one of the movie’s major themes: loyalty. There’s a sizable culture of romanticized Confederate apologia in modern America, epitomized by groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Central to this movement are the notions that the Confederacy had little to do with slavery, and that Confederate soldiers and commanders like General Robert E. Lee epitomized valor, patriotic virtue, undying loyalty, and other Hallmark-style sentiments.

The Knight Band’s fight against Confederate authorities reveal the complex nature of loyalty in the Civil War South. It’s one thing to tout your ancestors’ supposed devotion to the Confederate cause, but it’s another thing entirely to ask what such devotion actually meant in light of the Confederacy’s most loathsome policies.

Did loyalty to the Confederacy entail forced military service? Did loyalty to the Confederacy mean allowing Rebel forces to confiscate private property in the name of the greater cause? Did loyalty to the Confederacy mean you ought to fight to keep black people in chains? New Knight didn’t think so. The Knight Company’s fight against the Confederacy was part of the other Civil War, a conflict that raged throughout the South between Unionists and ordinary white and black southerners who resisted the slaveholders’ power. The inner Civil War made the political personal by putting multiple loyalties into conflict; by pitting a totalitarian vision of national loyalty against allegiances to self and kin. As Victoria Bynum writes, “personal awareness bred political resistance.”*

Newton Knight, the real-life leader of the Free State of Jones.

Newton Knight, the real-life leader of the “Free State of Jones.”

When the Civil War ends in Confederate defeat, the promises of the “Free State of Jones” go down in a blaze of racial resentment. I’ve spent much of this review discussing how Ross’s film depicts the Civil War years. That’s because you can’t understand his tragic depiction of Reconstruction without understanding the radical potential that the war unleashed, and which Reconstruction eventually crushed.

Scholars of the Civil War debate to what extent the underlying themes of the conflict — race, class, political equality — carried into Reconstruction and shaped the reunited nation that emerged in the preceding decades. In effect, historians ask whether or not the Civil War actually ended in 1865. Yes, the war abolished slavery, but did it abolish the culture that allowed slavery to flourish in the first place? Free State of Jones answers this question in a visceral way that recognizes the themes of recent scholarship and shows audiences just what “inequality” meant as a lived experience.

With the war over, Newt Knight’s multi-racial, multi-gender company disbands, and the old planter class reasserts its power in Mississippi with aid from President Andrew Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction policies. Thus, black people who are technically free are forced back into agricultural labor as sharecroppers, and the divisions between whites that flared in wartime now succumb to long-entrenched racism that unifies white hostility against freedpeople. If the “Free State of Jones” held out the promise that at least some members of the white South could rebel against the destructive culture of slavery and racial animus, Reconstruction demonstrated the tragic staying power of long-entrenched prejudice. No one understood this better than the freedpeople.

Director Ross effectively depicts how racialized violence turned everyday living into a living hell during the Reconstruction years. The newly formed Ku Klux Klan, often composed of former Confederate soldiers, goes on horrifying night rides throughout Mississippi. They burn down black homes, intimidate black voters, and even murder black people who refuse to accept the reassertion of white supremacy. This was terrorism on American soil, and it defined the South for a generation after the war.

Even a simple act like voting was downright revolutionary in the post-war South. When Newt Knight leads a group of black men to the polls to cast Republican votes, the local white supremacist Democrats claim there are no Republican ballots available. Later, Knight’s friend Moses Washington attempts to register black voters to the Republican Party. He attracts the attention of white thugs who eventually castrate him and hang his body from a tree. These were the daily realities of Reconstruction in the South: a society in which seeking the equality promised by four years of war could get you ostracized or killed with little hope for justice.

This depiction shows of the perils of Reconstruction voting, which Free State of Jones depicts with harsh accuracy.

This depiction shows of the perils of Reconstruction voting, which Free State of Jones depicts with harsh accuracy.

For his part, Newt Knight becomes a pariah among other white Mississippians for daring to have a relationship with a former slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whom he met during the war. Newt and Rachel’s relationship violated ironclad southern racial, class, and gender boundaries. Ross depicts the consequences for Newt and Rachel’s mixed-race family line via flash forward scenes to the mid-20th century, when Knight’s great-great-great grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin) is literally put on trial for being a “black” man (he looks white) who married a white woman in defiance of Mississippi law.

While the northern and southern armies ceased fighting in 1865, the fight for social justice didn’t cease. That so many Americans are familiar with a romanticized version of the Civil War but less familiar with the terror and injustice of Reconstruction is a tragedy. Free State of Jones at least depicts America’s “Unfinished Revolution” in its rawest form.

All of that said, Free State of Jones is a flawed movie: it’s very long, its transition scenes are often clunky, and it tries to cram a LOT of important history into a single film. Nonetheless, this film is a very real achievement. As Americans continue to reckon with their country’s failures to live up to its founding principles, Free State of Jones reminds us that even in our darkest hours, dissenters challenged American society’s most intractable injustices. While the South gave us people like Nathan Bedford Forrest and Bull Connor, it also gave us people like Newt and Rachel Knight. They weren’t perfect by any measure, but they demonstrated the vital role that dissent has played in the long, multi-generational process of transforming “equality” from high-falutin’ ideal to concrete reality.

* See Victoria E. Bynum, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001), 95.

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3 Comments

  1. Good commentary. I have yet to see the film, but am working my way through the book. I am impressed by the way Bynum explored the cultural, social, economic, racial, religious, and gender history of the area and the people involved in the period. She really took pains to uncover the elements that were involved in the motivations of the people.

    Free State of Jones is part of a change in how Hollywood portrays history. I think it might be the first movie that tackles the Reconstruction myths just like several movies have challenged the Lost Cause myths of the Civil War lately. The heritage crowd will whine about this movie, but that is nothing unusual. It threatens their cherished fictional account of their ancestors which is why they will reject the film.

    I plan to use this film or at least some parts of it down the road as part of my history class when I explain how the idea of a unified South is a myth. It will also help to move the students from the Civil War to Reconstruction in a better way too. I think this is a period that may possibly be the most misunderstood part of American History. To what degree the lost cause plays in that is something I am sure is quite high.

  2. A nice write-up you’ve composed here, Jarret. Reconstruction is one of my favorite eras–I’ve known about Foner’s work since undergrad and used his textbook, Give Me Liberty!, quite often in the classroom. Because of his clarity and unpretentious approach to writing, Foner has always been one of my favorite authors. The Lost Cause mythology is definitely still worth addressing even if academic historians haven’t embraced it since the 1960s. The reason is that there is still so much misinformation being taught in many high schools in the United States, including those who continue to deny, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, the centrality of slavery to the Civil War. David Blight and Gary Gallagher informed my thinking on this subject and Heather Cox Richardson wrote an interesting book on Reconstruction.

    • Thanks for reading, Stephen! Foner is is getting a bit long in the tooth, and his Reconstruction work has been expanded upon immensely by subsequent scholars over the years, but I think his central idea of that period as an “Unfinished Revolution” still holds strong. And the thing is, no matter how much historians slaughter sacred cows like the Lost Cause, when it comes to the Confederacy, myth always seems to stay put to some extent (plus, most people don’t read academic historians. Yeah, I said it). I cited Richardson in an early piece on this site about early racism in the GOP, as well.

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