It might be that easygoing Texan drawl that makes Matthew McConaughey the emblematic all-American movie star of his generation, or the patriotic sizzle cemented by the sight of him swathed in red, white, and blue chasing the American Dream as a male stripper-cum-entrepreneur—the Uncle Sam of Magic Mike. Even the current issue of People magazine excitedly proclaims McConaughey “Our #1 Reason To Love America!” and who among us would dare argue with that?
But in his latest film, the Civil War biopic Free State of Jones, the Oscar-winning actor takes a different tack toward serious historical introspection. In bringing the extraordinary and controversial life of farmer, father, Confederate deserter, and militant Southern Unionist Newton Knight to the big screen, McConaughey asks us to consider America’s ugly past—and in doing so, ponder its future.
“I’m in South Africa at the moment and it’s just after sundown,” McConaughey murmurs in that unmistakable genteel drawl via phone from Cape Town, where he’s been filming the Stephen King adaptation The Dark Tower since April.
“Apartheid was just ended 22 years ago. And you look at America. You look at the East, and you look at Asia, and you look at Europe, and I’m reminded how young we are as a country. I’m reminded of how ambitious we are. But I’m also reminded of how we are, and there are a lot of things going on right now.”
McConaughey sure is right: Shortly after our conversation, dozens of House Democrats would launch into an epic sit-in protest on the floor of the House of Representatives seeking a gun control vote in the wake of the terrorist attack in Orlando, garnering viral media attention with their uncharacteristic display of good old-fashioned disruption.
So it’s prescient, or perhaps just a sign of our times, that even while working halfway around the world McConaughey is eager to shed light on the patriotic legacy of Newton Knight, a figure so contentious that historians today on either side of the Mason-Dixon line still argue bitterly over whether he was a hero or some kind of scoundrel.
In many ways Knight was probably both. The sprawling historical biopic Free State Of Jones, written and directed by Hunger Games and Seabiscuit helmer Gary Ross, tracks Knight’s journey from reluctant Confederate soldier to deserter to freedom fighting local militia leader, one who not only led a group of poor white farmers and freed black slaves in brutally violent rebellions against the South, but also fathered several children with a white wife and a black common-law wife (not to mention his second wife’s daughter, a fact overlooked in the film) to the lasting chagrin of his critics.
As told by Free State of Jones, Knight was a fierce leader who believed that love is love, and also believed in using deadly force for a cause. In his time, both acts openly defied the laws and morals of the American government.
“I had never heard of Newton Knight or this story, or of stories of Confederate defectors myself,” McConaughey says. “When Gary Ross gave me the script my first question was, ‘Wow—this is true?’ I remember thinking this script is worthy of making even if it’s not true. It happens to be true.”
Knight’s journey, he notes, was an evolution that only began when he stood up for his individual rights, fed up by a Confederate Army that was exploiting the men and women of the South to fuel its war machine. “‘You can’t treat me like that,’ ‘You can’t take my mama’s mule,’ ‘You can’t make me fight for your rich man’s war,’ that turned into, ‘You can’t treat my neighbor like that.’ And that turned into, ‘You can’t treat anyone like that.’
“This man’s sense of his family became the sense of a family of man—mankind, womankind, all kind,” he continues. “But it started off as very selfish. You can’t treat me like that. You can’t take 10 percent of what I own. He was defending his own rights, and that became defending freedom for everyone.”
The value in Knight’s awakening, McConaughey suggests, is that it led to a similar awakening in others. His growing band of followers—fellow deserters, fed up farmers, women and slaves and freedmen—became thorns in the Confederacy’s side, outliers armed in open defiance and hidden in the impenetrable swamps of Mississippi.
And one clear intention of the film is to remind audiences that even as we believe we’ve progressed as a nation, there’s still plenty of wrong that hasn’t yet been righted.
McConaughey says he’s inspired by the sense of righteousness and sense of justice that Knight found in the Bible. With one eye on the present—where a divided America is bitterly split along lines of politics and faith that spill over into matters of policy, from the anti-LGBT legislation championed by the religious right to a 2016 election so intertwined with faith that even the pope called shenanigans on GOP frontrunner Donald Trump—such a sentiment might be read as encouragement for Christians to pause and remember the teachings of the text.
The actor, 46, politely declines to comment on the current election and its players, although he admits he has “many opinions” on those matters. Instead, he deliberately focuses on the nonpartisan issues that parallel Knight’s tumultuous times and our own.
“Knight had a moral code rooted in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence: love thy neighbor as thyself, and all men are created equal,” he offers. “So he had a very radical relationship with his own independence, and interdependence—which is very American. Extremely American.
“It is my personal belief that mankind has bastardized religion,” he says. “Religion actually means, if you look up the Latin root, ‘re’ which means again, and ‘ligare,’ which means to bind together. It means exactly the opposite of what and how we are often practicing it these days!
“All of this, the abolition of slavery in the Civil War at this time, they were almost all led by religious movements—Christian movements—that were trumping the ideals that everyone else had. They went further into it and said, ‘No, this is not right—because of the Bible.’”
Actual images of the real Knight depict a fierce man with wild eyes and a shock of unruly hair. Historical accounts suggest he snuck into the home of Confederate Major Amos McLemore, who had led efforts to hunt down deserters, and shot him dead, right in the back. The film depicts him as a noble but brutal leader who wasn’t afraid to kill his enemies to defend his community and its people.
“He was not a ‘turn the other cheek’ New Testament guy,” McConaughey chuckled, offering the understatement of the century. “One of the things I noticed about him was if he saw something that was wrong or unjust, he really had no way to ignore it. It was not in his DNA to ignore it, damned be the consequences. He didn’t lose sleep over any decisions he made. That’s something I really admired about the guy.
“Have we evolved? Sure we have. Must we be aware of the progress we’ve made? Absolutely. Do we still have challenges that we have to overcome? Absolutely.”
Portraying Knight and his righteous crusade had its great difficulties. Neither McConaughey nor his costars shy away from using the n-word, for example. “Personally, I think you put it out there in front of a light and let’s examine that, let’s examine what its historical meaning is, what its present meaning is,” he explained to Moviefone. “And understand how it hurts. It was a hard but beautiful scene that we did.”
The ugliness of slavery and the continued murder, disenfranchisement, and exploitation of African-Americans during Reconstruction, which comprises the film’s final act, are important truths to confront. McConaughey’s key takeaway from the experience? Context—for himself and for his young children.
“American history. World history. My own family’s history,” he says. “Taking my children to set, telling them the story—trying to find a way to tell the story to young kids when I get home every night and before work in a way that they can understand it, and then hearing the questions that they had. Taking my children to set and saying, ‘This is a horrible thing, but it’s true. And you know what, the truth burns. But I’d rather us talk about some really ugly scars in our history that are still relevant today than you go play Call of Duty and shoot a bunch of people in a video game.’
“It happened. It’s real. So let’s sit here and go, ‘Yeah, guess what man, the world is not all clean and neat. We want to expect the best in everyone but we have to understand that we all have good and bad in us, and these are some times when we’ve made mistakes, there are some things where people were just wrong, and this is how we’ve improved and are still evolving. This is a situation that you will be handed and which will be more evolved when you get to it.’”
McConaughey describes an optimism for the future his three kids, aged 6 through 8, will grow into.
“America turns the page and evolves quicker than most places historically. In that way I’m inspired, and it makes me happy to be, and honored, to be an American,” he says. “I’m not saying everything is just as they should be. But our ambition and our diligence to march forward for change, to test it out, to not give in to every new idea… Where do we hang onto tradition, and where do we progress with new ideas, and ones that will hopefully stand the test of time? That excites me about our country.”
He bids me goodbye to return to The Dark Tower, in which he plays the villainous Man in Black to Idris Elba’s dystopian sci-fi Western hero. Even in that world, good and evil are relative depending on whose shoes you’re standing in. McConaughey considered whether his Walter Padick, the greatest villain in the Stephen King multiverse, would believe himself to be evil incarnate. He pauses. “He sure doesn’t think he is,” he says. “A good villain believes he’s a minister of peace.”