‘The Free State of Jones’ Battles Civil War Cliches

The new movie about Southerners who broke with the Confederacy arrives just when the nation has reopened the debate over the legacy and the symbols of the Civil War.

Photo Illustration by Kelly Caminer/ The Daily Beast

By the early 20th century, the story of Newton Knight’s rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi had been all but overshadowed by a Lost Cause narrative that claimed a unified white populace and loyal slave population that valiantly resisted invading “Yankee” hordes. Parading Confederate veterans embracing their old battle flags and the erection of monuments glorifying the cause left little room to recall interracial resistance during the war at the height of the Jim Crow era. But while this story has remained obscure for more than a century, it is surely no accident that the new movie, Free State of Jones, from writer and director Gary Ross and starring Matthew McConaughey as Knight, is being released amidst a sustained assault against the public display of the Confederate battle flag and the many monuments that dot the southern landscape following the June 2015 shooting of nine Charleston, S.C., churchgoers by an individual who identified closely with Confederate iconography.

By November 1862, Newton Knight and others serving in the army had grown disillusioned with Confederate policies such as the “Twenty Negro Law,” which permitted southerners with twenty or more slaves to remain at home as well as a “tax in kind” system that allowed officials to confiscate private property for the war effort. Knight’s decision to desert the army and return home reflected a growing sense that the conflict had become a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Continued pressure by Confederate officials to round up deserters like Knight forced him into the swamps around Jones County, where he and others hid with escaped slaves. The attempt to evade capture gradually shifted to a full-scale rebellion against Confederate control of Jones and surrounding counties. By the spring of 1864 Knight and his followers declared a “Free State of Jones.”

The story of Knight’s rebellion is new territory for Hollywood, which throughout much of the 20th century released films that reinforced the Lost Cause, most notably, Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and more recently, Gods & Generals. We have to go back to 2003’s Cold Mountain to find anything comparable to Free State of Jones. In that film, Inman, played by Jude Law deserts the Confederate army in the summer of 1864 to return to western North Carolina and a woman he barely knows. Although the Confederate Home Guard pursues him relentlessly, the movie is as much, if not more, about his destination than it is about any sort of ideological stance against the Confederacy. Even Shenandoah, released in 1965 and starring Jimmy Stewart as Charlie Anderson (the head of a family that includes four strapping young men who somehow evade the draft), fails to turn against the Confederacy. By the end of the film, the loss of his children and the destruction of his farm leaves Anderson confused and disillusioned about the futility of all wars.

Free State of Jones is arguably the first Hollywood film, with a focus on white southerners, that is decidedly anti-Confederate. But that alone will not sell tickets. It is the interracial dynamic of Knight’s band of resisters and his own relationship with a domestic slave named Rachel that Gary Ross hopes will resonate with audiences. We know very little about Newton Knight’s racial outlook. In fact, Victoria Bynum’s excellent book, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, on which the movie is largely based, is all but silent on the question of whether Knight ought to be considered an abolitionist or an advocate for racial equality. Ross, however, assures us that his foray into the scholarly literature serves as a solid foundation for his interpretation.

In Ross’s hands Knight’s vision for the future of Jones County unites poor whites and blacks around a timeless populist message. In one scene Knight implores his followers to remember:

No man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. No man ought to tell another man what he’s got to live for or what he’s got to die for. What you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest, and ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you.

Knight’s most powerful impromptu public sermons are reserved for the morality of slavery. Ross’s Knight emerges not simply as anti-slavery, but at times verges on what audiences may mistake as an early leader of the civil rights movement itself. Knight encourages his followers to remember that “you cannot own a child of God” and that in the end “we are all just somebody else’s nigger.” It should come as no surprise that the film’s preview clips center on these themes of anti-slavery and interracial cooperation.

At two and a half hours, Free State of Jones attempts to tackle too much history. I would have preferred a narrower focus that more carefully explored the racial dynamics of Knight’s Company as well as the women who fought alongside him during the war. More importantly, the movie steers clear of Rachel’s back story, including the three children she bore as the result of a forced relationship with slaveholders, and Newton Knight’s involvement with her daughter, George Ann. Knight’s evolving relationship with Rachel also leaves more questions than answers, especially once his first wife, Serena, moves back into the household. This may make it easier on the audience, but it does so at a price.

Instead, Ross is committed to telling a story that challenges the broad narrative arc of American history that places racial progress at its center. The final third of the movie focuses on the challenges faced by Knight and his African American followers as they try to define and defend the limits of freedom during Reconstruction. It is an untenable situation as the interracial wartime bond gives way to fears of what black freedom and civil rights will mean for the status of poor whites and driven by a deep seated racism that was never entirely removed. Unfortunately, the use of subtitles to tell this final chapter derails the movie and gives it more of a documentary flavor, but it does include a number of powerful scenes of black political action and violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan. Whatever criticisms can be leveled here must be weighed alongside the fact that this will likely be the first exposure to the history of Reconstruction for many moviegoers.

The movie ends in a ’40s Mississippi courtroom, where Davis Knight, a descendant of Newton’s, is on trial for violating the state’s miscegenation laws. The question the case hinged on was whether the defendant was descended from Rachel or Serena and offers a window into the strict racial boundaries that Knight’s rebellion ultimately failed to alter. It also brings the story just close enough to the present day for audiences to reflect on the continued challenges that as a nation we still face on the racial front.

The call to remove Confederate flags and monuments over the past year has left some people concerned that history itself is under assault, but it is the very challenge to these symbols that has, in part, exposed stories that were once deemed to be a threat to the prevailing political and racial hierarchy. Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones is not a perfect movie, but his decision to bring the story of Newton Knight to the big screen suggests that we may finally be ready to move beyond the sterilized landscape of Confederate monuments to embrace a darker past that ultimately may help to shed some light on the present.

Kevin M. Levin is a historian and educator based in Boston. He is the author of Remembering the Battle of the Crater: War as Murder (2012) and is currently at work on Searching For Black Confederate Soldiers: The Civil War’s Most Persistent Myth. You can find him online at Civil War Memory and Twitter @kevinlevin.