When the word emancipation turns up in the narrative titles of Free State of Jones, a new Civil War drama, it’s enclosed in quotation marks. That skeptical touch is only a sign of our times—growing racial tension in the U.S., stoked by police killings of unarmed black citizens, the rollback of voting rights, and the ongoing injustice of the drug war, have created an appetite for fresh views of American slavery and more critical assessments of its legacy. Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012) painted an unvarnished portrait of the president as he pushed the 13th Amendment through Congress, and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) shocked people with its frank re-creation of the racist antebellum south. More recently the History Channel unveiled a remake of the 1977 miniseries adapted from Alex Haley’s best seller Roots, about several generations of a slave family, and this fall Fox Searchlight will release Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation, which dramatizes the Virginia slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831.
Free State of Jones tells the story of Newton Knight, a Confederate deserter who commanded a company of pro-Union insurrectionists in Jones County, Mississippi, and his life is tailor-made for this sort of cinematic investigation. Knight has long been a divisive figure in the south, scorned by some as a common bandit and lionized by others as an egalitarian hero. “Newt Knight is a kind of Rorschach,” notes Jones County descendant Jonathan Odell. “If he never lived, we would have to invent him.” Knight served in the Seventh Battalion of the Mississippi Infantry, Company F, but deserted in the fall of 1862. After the siege of Vicksburg in 1863 sent even more deserters trickling back to Jones County, Knight united them and the community in armed combat against the government, staging raids on Confederate warehouses, capturing and killing soldiers, and chasing tax agents out of the county. For Gary Ross, who wrote and directed Free State of Jones, Knight was a utopian socialist and integrationist, dreaming of a world where all races are equal and people keep the fruits of their labor. He’s a hero for our times, though to some extent Ross has had to invent him.
As Victoria Bynum explains in her book Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, Knight’s life story has been pulled this way and that over the years, not least because his postwar sexual relationship with Rachel Knight, one of his grandfather’s former slaves, may have produced as many as five mixed-race children. Newton Knight’s life story was first told in a book by his son, Thomas Jefferson Knight, who portrayed him as a man protecting the women and children of Jones County; this heroic conception was echoed in James Street’s 1942 novel Tap Roots, which was made into a Hollywood movie six years later. Three years after that, in 1951, Newt’s grandniece Ethel Knight published her biography The Echo of the Black Horn, which pilloried Newt as a bloodthirsty killer and exposed his relationship with Rachel Knight. A strict segregationist and anticommunist, Ethel had her own political axes to grind with Newton Knight, blaming the recent interest in his story on communist subversion.
In fact we know little about Knight’s motivations. A yeoman farmer, he was too poor to own slaves, and his resentment of the Confederacy stemmed more from class inequality than racial injustice. According to one historical witness quoted by Bynum, Knight was incensed by the Twenty Negro Law, which exempted from military duty any man who owned at least 20 slaves: “He felt that the law wasn’t fair; that it enabled the rich man to evade service and that it wasn’t right to ask him to risk his life for people who rated themselves so far above him.” Talking to a reporter in 1921, Knight complained that the voters of Jones County had opposed secession from the Union but were double-crossed by their delegate to the Mississippi state convention. After the war Knight was appointed a relief commissioner for the community, and records indicate that he used his political clout to help freed slaves; even more significant, he defied the racial codes of the old south by taking Rachel Knight into his household and raising her children as his own.
Working from a story by Leonard Hartman, Ross plays up the racial and economic angles with a narrative in which Newton Knight (a smoldering Matthew McConaughey), having gone AWOL to bring home the corpse of his teenage nephew, hides out in a swamp with a handful of escaped slaves and then integrates them into his ragtag army. When one of the deserters tries to assert white privilege over the slaves, Knight reminds him that they’re all held down by the big plantation owners who control the Confederacy: “I mean, they just pick cotton for ’em. You? You was willin’ to get killed for ’em.” After the Knight Company defends the town of Ellisville from Confederate forces, Knight lowers the old battle flag and raises the Stars and Stripes, declaring a “Free State of Jones” and enumerating such principles as “No man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich” and “You walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”
As Bynum notes in her book, the so-called Free State of Jones represented “an alternative Southern vision of the Civil War,” and Ross runs with that idea, giving white southerners something the cinema rarely offers them: the chance to embrace their heritage while rejecting the Confederacy. The legend of the Knight Company is thrilling precisely because it hijacks some of the most romantic aspects of Confederate mythology: it’s a doomed rebellion against the larger doomed rebellion, a lost cause (of African-American equality) inside a larger lost cause (of southern independence). McConaughey plays Knight as the ultimate southern gentleman and badass, rooted in his community and sensitive to the humanity of women and people of color. As statehouses around the Deep South remove their Confederate battle flags, Free State of Jones gives them something to run up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes.
Free State of Jones may be hitting theaters as a Fourth of July feel-good movie, but to Ross’s credit it ends with a sobering lesson in how easily hard-fought freedoms can be snatched away. No one ever makes movies about Reconstruction because the topic is such a downer; Ross devotes a good 20 minutes of his 139-minute drama to the years after emancipation, when modest gains by freed slaves are reversed by members of the land-owning aristocracy as they reassert their dominance in the political process. Knight may have taken over the county during the war, but he can’t fight the tides of history as local governments conspire to disenfranchise African-Americans and the Klan launches its reign of terror. Independence Day movies are supposed to let freedom ring, yet as we all know from experience, sometimes freedom rings hollow. v