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Black and White in the Free State of Jones

Nina Silber is professor of history at Boston University and focuses on issues related to the US Civil War, historical memory, and gender in the Civil War era. She is the author of numerous publications including The Romance of Reunion: Northerners and the South, 1865-1900; Daughters of the Union: Northern Women Fight the Civil War; and Gender and the Sectional Conflict. Her article, “Reunion and Reconciliation, Reviewed and Reconsidered” appears in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of American History.

Nina Silber is professor of history at Boston University and focuses on issues related to the US Civil War, historical memory, and gender in the Civil War era. She is the author of Gender and the Sectional Conflict. Her article, “Reunion and Reconciliation, Reviewed and Reconsidered” appears in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of American History.

I’ll confess: I was fully prepared to be disappointed with the recently-released Free State of Jones. Not out of any disrespect toward the excellent historical scholarship behind the film, including Victoria Bynum’s superb book by the same name which helped inspire filmmaker Gary Ross’ initial interest. Rather, my skepticism stems from a long history of bad Civil War films, a history that includes truly atrocious movies like Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and Gods and Generals. As these films attest, Civil War film-making has frequently been an exercise in myth-making and obfuscation: these movies have, repeatedly, erased the central problem of slavery; ignored the critical role of African American slaves and freedpeople in fighting for emancipation; and portrayed Southern whites as the victims of a tyrannical Northern onslaught, both during but especially after the war had ended. These movies fit in a long history of what, in my recent JAH article, I refer to as “the imagined reconstitution of the nation,” an imagining that privileged the sectional reunification of whites while pushing African Americans to the sidelines. Free State of Jones, in stark contrast, generally gets the central historical narrative right and even manages to tell some complicated history in a moving and compelling manner. Most notably, it effectively pushes back on some of the most deeply entrenched myths of all: on the true meaning and significance of Reconstruction.

Yet, Free State of Jones, for all its didactic historical lessons, is hardly a film treatment of a history book. It remains a work of the imagination and a product of a Hollywood film system. And, in this respect, Free State of Jones reminds us that even an earnest and well-intentioned Hollywood director, which film-maker Gary Ross seems to have been, cannot avoid bending and shaping the history to make a movie that fits with certain Hollywood demands and cinematic conventions.

Free State of Jones tells the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a true-to-life, non-slaveholding farmer from Jones County, Mississippi, who deserts from the Confederate Army, disgusted at the senseless brutality and the increasing pressure on poor men to fight a war that served the interests of wealthy slaveholders. With its vividly gruesome battle and hospital scenes, its references to the “20 Negro Law” (which allowed slaveowners with twenty or more slaves to claim an exemption from military service), and the merciless seizure of poor farmers’ goods to support the Confederate war effort, Free State of Jones accurately conveys the intensifying class conflict within the Confederacy. Outraged by what he has seen and been forced to endure, Knight flees to a swamp where he encounters a group of escaped slaves. Gradually, he is joined by more Confederate deserters who ultimately declare their independence from the Confederacy and proclaim a “Free State of Jones.” The politics of this resistance movement is hazy, as it no doubt was in the 1860s: were they pro-Union? Anti-slavery? Anti-authoritarian? Dealing with the black-white alliance was also clearly a sticking point as the film pushes the initial group of escaped slaves to the sidelines but then gradually brings them back into the mix, especially after there has been some disgruntlement among the whites about sharing food with “niggers.” Eventually, Knight proclaims that “everybody is somebody else’s nigger” in order to impress upon the white people in his group the need for inter-racial cooperation. In short, the film very much wants to showcase a genuine, bi-racial movement, including Knight’s loving relationship with a female slave (beautifully portrayed by Gugu Mbatha-Raw)—and there is evidence in the historical record to support some level of black-white collaboration—yet, to do so, it must simplify and compress a host of complicated historical issues.

Most importantly, Free State of Jones unabashedly tackles Reconstruction, refusing to draw a neat point of closure with Appomattox. Indeed, one can almost hear the chorus of historians with whom Ross consulted, urging a thorough telling of this part of the story. The film spotlights the limits of emancipation by calling attention to the postwar “Black Codes” and especially the” apprenticeship” system that allowed state officials to force black children to work for white planters. It conveys frustration over the betrayed promises of “forty acres and a mule,” yet also demonstrates the pain-staking work of black activists who built a grassroots political movement amidst a brutal white supremacist backlash. The chronology, it is true, gets a bit messy but the basic outlines of the story are in place. 

Perhaps a bigger problem with Free State of Jones, one that impedes on its ability to convey the full historical picture, is its overwhelming focus on its white hero, Newton Knight. Gary Ross has argued that Knight is not meant to be “a white savior of African Americans, but a white ally.” If so, he’s a white ally who clearly consumes a lot of screen time. One of the first encounters Knight has, for example, with the escaped slaves in the swamps is his meeting with Moses (Mahershala Ali), a fictionalized character who has been forced by his former owners to wear an iron cage around his head. Soon after he arrives, Knight uses his tools to break the bolts that hold Moses’ cage in place, thus effecting a symbolic and literal liberation. Knight, of course, remains central to the wartime struggle against the Confederacy, although in this regard he’s less of a white savior and more of a savvy guerilla fighter who ably expresses poor men’s outrage at the Confederate elite. More problematic is how much Knight continues to dominate the story through its Reconstruction section: although one scene does put him to the side in a Union League meeting, most scenes keep him center-stage: freeing Moses’ child from his “apprenticeship;” leading black and white men to the polling station to cast their ballots; speaking over the grave of Moses after he has been lynched by the Klan in retaliation for his political organizing. While there is, indeed, historical evidence that attests to Newton Knight’s commitment to the black struggle through the Reconstruction era, the film does a dis-service in making Knight such a singular force in this part of the narrative.

Perhaps to counter the didacticism of its Reconstruction scenes, Ross gives viewers a more personal, and contemporary, angle for understanding the legacy of Reconstruction’s failure. In frequent flash-forwards, we learn of Newton Knight’s grandson, Davis Knight, who faced criminal charges for being a black man (albeit one who has successfully “passed” as white) married to a white woman. Although convicted, Davis later gained his freedom when the Mississippi state supreme court overturned the case. The film suggests the court acted to forestall the growing federal scrutiny that had begun to build at the outset of the Civil Rights era. The technique is a bit labored, and the court-room scenes a bit hokey, but the point seems to be that, to paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of the moral universe will finally bend toward justice.

Despite its flaws, I found much in the film to admire, much that was beautifully and movingly portrayed. I was, moreover, cheered by its keen attention to current historical scholarship. (The film even has a detailed website which allows users to scroll through sections of the movie to see the historical evidence.) I liked, too, the way the film gave considerable gravitas to its female characters, many of whom, black and white, were shown standing down the Confederates with guns in their hands. Free State of Jones clearly has respect for black and female (not to mention black female) empowerment. Which makes it regrettable that, in the end, Ross felt the need to fall back on the far-too-ordinary tale of the heroic white man battling the entrenched forces of reaction.