The Real A’Lelia Walker Is Much More Interesting Than the Myth

A’Lelia Walker was born 134 years ago today on June 6, 1885.

I’ve written a lot about her since I began researching her life during my senior year in high school fifty years ago. I won’t rehash the basic biographical information, which you can find in my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, and in blog articles like “A’Lelia Walker’s 1924 Visit to Atlantic City” and “A’Lelia Walker Meets Ethiopian Empress Zauditu” on my website.

What I’d like to do today in celebration of her birthday is talk about the person I’ve discovered through extensive research – including her personal correspondence and other primary source documents – rather than the caricature that a number of authors have created.
First and foremost, she will always be known as the daughter of Madam C. J. Walker, the early 20th century hair care entrepreneur and philanthropist. But she also was her own person with interests, personality traits, likes, dislikes and a fascinating circle of friends.
More than I knew when I wrote On Her Own Ground twenty years ago, she was very much a patron of the arts with her own strong passion for music and art that began when she was growing up in St. Louis during the ragtime era of the 1890s. She traveled internationally and understood current events and the politics of Jim Crow. She had an impresario’s instinct for staging extravagant events.

She was a fashion trendsetter with a sharp eye for design. Her parties helped define the Harlem Renaissance. Her Dark Tower cultural salon was legendary. While she was less directly engaged than her mother in causes like the anti-lynching and women’s club movements, she raised money for community and social service organizations.

How Other Authors Viewed A’Lelia Walker
My literary introduction to A’Lelia Walker was through Langston Hughes’s The Big Sea, in which he famously proclaimed her death in August 1931 to be the end of an era. “That was really the end of the gay times of the New Negro era in Harlem,” he wrote. It is Hughes who anointed her “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s” because of her parties and her room-filling personality.

What I have discovered after decades of research, however, is that several other authors who did not know her have repeated second hand, inaccurate and entirely fabricated stories about her. It’s hard to resist wondering if some of them have a need to project a story line onto her life. In their speculation and their failure to do original research, they have relied upon stereotypes and clichés about what they imagine A’Lelia Walker might have done.

I very much admire David Levering Lewis’s Pulitzer Prize-winning scholarship on W.E.B. DuBois, but his description of A’Lelia Walker in his widely read When Harlem Was in Vogue set the stage for a great deal of misinformation about her. Just as I discovered while doing research for my four Madam Walker books, I have encountered the same fictionalization of A’Lelia Walker while researching The Joy Goddess of Harlem: A’Lelia Walker and the Harlem Renaissance (forthcoming from Scribner). In all her complexity and contradictions, A’Lelia Walker is an original who needs no embellishment.

I won’t address all the myths today, but here are three of the most glaring.

The Myth of A’Lelia Walker’s Short Attention Span
In 1982 Lewis wrote: “Her intellectual powers were slight. After seven minutes, conversation went precipitously downhill, but those first seven minutes were usually quite creditable.” Among the many authors who have mentioned A’Lelia Walker since then, Steven Watson perpetuated this myth in his 1995 book, The Harlem Renaissance, when he wrote: “One acquaintance cattily declared seven minutes to be her limit for elevated conversation.”
I’ve always found this claim odd. During the early 1980s, I had the good fortune of interviewing a dozen or so of A’Lelia Walker’s octogenarian and nonagenarian friends who regaled me with stories of their social gatherings and travels. To a person, they described A’Lelia’s attention to detail for the elegant parties she orchestrated. I know from her letters how focused she could be when she cared about something. I can’t help but wonder if, by chance, someone actually said she had a seven-minute attention span, that that person may have been someone she didn’t like or with whom she didn’t wish to have a conversation. She could be like that when she wanted to.
The Myth that A’Lelia Walker Didn’t Read Books
Watson seems to have started this rumor when he wrote: “Although she supported Harlem culture, she had little interest in intellectual talk and rarely read books.” More recently Saidiya Hartman paraphrased Watson and others in her 2019 book when she wrote: “[S]he financed the Dark Tower, a literary salon in her palatial home of thirty rooms, although it was rumored that she never read books, only supported their authors.” (The Dark Tower, by the way, was in A’Lelia Walker’s 136th Street townhouse rather than in Villa Lewaro, her Irvington, New York mansion.) Neither Watson or Hartman cites a source for this claim.

In fact, I have many books from A’Lelia Walker’s personal library, including an autographed copy of Langston Hughes’s The Weary Blues. I also have personal correspondence in which she thanks friends for books they have sent her and talks about how much she loves to read.


The Myth that Grace Nail Johnson Wouldn’t Socialize with A’Lelia Walker

One of the most memorable passages in Lewis’s When Harlem Was in Vogue is this: “Not everybody pined for an invitation to her brownstones and her country place. Grace Nail Johnson, the wife of James Weldon Johnson and ‘social dictator’ of Harlem, would as soon have done the Black Bottom on Lenox Avenue as cross A’Lelia’s threshold.”
These sentences have taken on a life of their own in Harlem Renaissance lore and been accepted as factual by readers and authors who have interpreted it to mean that A’Lelia Walker was shunned by Grace Nail Johnson and Harlem’s black elite.
In August 1999 Sondra Kathryn Wilson, the executor of the Johnson estate, told me in an email message that Mrs. Johnson was quite upset about this portrayal.
“It’s a lie,” she told Dr. Grace Sims Okala, her adopted daughter, in an interview recorded some years earlier by Wilson. “Grace and Jim considered the older Mrs. Walker as their friend. Grace often said that the elder Mrs. Walker and her father had similar backgrounds…Grace and Jim didn’t attend a lot of parties. Jim traveled a lot. He was gone so much and when he was home, he was writing. Grace and Jim preferred small dinner parties. If Grace didn’t attend the younger Ms. Walker’s parties, it had nothing to do with Ms. Walker. I know she wouldn’t attend a party if Jim was away. She wouldn’t have gone to Mrs. Walker’s or any other party alone.”
And I know from A’Lelia Walker’s correspondence – including an invitation for an event that lists both A’Lelia Walker and Grace Nail Johnson as hosts – that the speculation about their estrangement is inaccurate. Among other things, the spirit and implication of the story are contradicted by what society columnist Gerri Major, singer Alberta Hunter, artist Romare Bearden and many others told me about A’Lelia Walker during the 1980s.
There is so much more to say about my great-great-grandmother and namesake. Stay tuned for The Joy Goddess of Harlem.

The Centennial of Madam C. J. Walker’s Death – May 25, 1919

On Sunday morning, May 25, 1919 – exactly 100 years ago this weekend – Madam C. J. Walker died at Villa Lewaro, her Irvington-on-Hudson, New York estate.

A few hours later in black churches across America, ministers talked of her journey from deep poverty in the cotton fields of Delta, Louisiana to president of the international Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company. It was such big news that the announcement also was made at a Negro League baseball game in Chicago that afternoon.

Madam C. J. Walker died on May 25, 1919 at Villa Lewaro, her Irvington, NY estate.

She was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 on the same plantation where her parents and older siblings had been enslaved before the end of the Civil War. The first child in her family born into freedom, she would become a millionaire who bequeathed more than $100,000 to her community, including $5,000 to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund.

By providing job opportunities for the nearly 20,000 sales agents and beauty culturists who sold her Wonderful Hair Grower, she helped them become economically independent. She used her wealth and influence as a philanthropist, patron of the arts and political activist to support black institutions and organizations.

Madam Walker at her first national convention of her sales agents and beauty culturists in 1917.

At her 1917 national convention, she told the delegates that their “first duty” as Walker associates “was to humanity.” During the final session, she and her agents dispatched a telegram to President Woodrow Wilson urging him to support legislation to make lynching a federal crime.

Madam Walker’s funeral on May 30 was a dignified gathering with pallbearers who represented black America’s most prominent civil rights, business and religious leaders. Walker Company employees and agents filed quietly and reverently past her casket in the music room at Villa Lewaro as J. Rosamond Johnson sang “Since You Went Away,” the spiritual he had composed with his brother, James Weldon Johnson.

This year as we observe the centennial of Madam Walker’s death, there is much to remind us of the powerful inspiration her legacy still provides.

Throughout 2019 and 2020 we’ll celebrate with several events including
*the launch of new products in Sundial’s MCJW hair care line at

MCJW, the Madam Walker line of hair care products created by Sundial Brands.

*the re-opening of the renovated Madam Walker Legacy Center in Indianapolis
*the September 19 opening of a Madam Walker exhibition at the Indiana Historical Society in Indianapolis
*the renaming this summer of 136th Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenue in Harlem

*the digitization of 40,000 items from the Madam Walker Collection of letters, photographs, business records and ephemera at the Indiana Historical Society

This spring we’ve already had help celebrating with

*a featured segment about Madam Walker in Stanley Nelson’s PBS documentary, “BOSS: The Black Experience in Business”

*Harlem Eat Up Luminary Award to Madam Walker
*”What Madam Taught Us” in the May issue of Essence
*AAIHS’s five-part Black Perspectives blog forum with articles by scholars who bring new perspectives on Madam Walker’s life
*Our interview with Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Morning Edition host Leah Fleming

ABC News Now’s segment about Villa Lewaro

Ronda Racha Penrice’s NBC BLK feature on Madam Walker

During the last four decades in my role as Madam Walker’s biographer, it has been a joy for me to share her story with a range of audiences from elementary school students and Harvard Business School classes to corporate CEOs and women in the college course at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.

Madam Walker biographies by A’Lelia Bundles

I’m grateful that my book, On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner/Lisa Drew 2001), is considered the most reliable source for accurate information about Madam Walker and that elementary school students can learn about her in All About Madam C. J. Walker (Cardinal/Blue River Press 2018).

Knowing that Villa Lewaro soon will become a think tank for women of color entrepreneurs under the auspices of the New Voices Foundation brings the story full circle just as Madam Walker dreamed when she moved into the house in 1918.

Follow us on Twitter at @aleliabundles @mcjwbeauty @madamcjwalker

Follow us on Instagram at @aleliabundles @mcjwbeauty

A’Lelia Bundles is Madam C. J. Walker’s great-great-granddaughter and biographer.


Remembering My Fantastic Dad, S. Henry Bundles, Jr. (1927-2019)

Henry Bundles 65th Birthday Party in 1992



My dad, S. Henry Bundles, Jr., died a few days ago on March 26.

Since then I’ve had a few tears, of course, but at the moment I am feeling more grateful than sad because he lived 92 very beautiful and productive years.

He was president of the Center for Leadership Development in Indianapolis from 1977 to 2000, a community leader, an institution builder and a fantastic father.

My brothers, Lance and Mark, and I are so fortunate to have had his love and guidance for so many decades. “He was a good father and a good man, who loved his children unconditionally,” Lance reminded me as we began to process our loss.

At Daddy's 65th Birthday Party in 1992

At Daddy’s 65th Birthday Party in 1992

I called him every Sunday morning at precisely 11:30 a.m. I knew he was waiting by the phone and I knew he would say, “Hello to the world’s greatest daughter!”

I truly will miss that cheerful greeting.

Daddy was born on February 15, 1927 in Indianapolis, the seventh of Mary Ellis Davis and S. Henry Bundles, Sr.’s nine children. He graduated from Crispus Attucks High School in 1943 when he was 16 years old. A 1948 graduate of Indiana University, he is believed to be the first black student to earn a degree from IU’s School of Journalism. It was a sign of the times that despite this degree and his experience as a photographer and reporter during his stint in the Navy during World War II no Indianapolis daily newspapers would hire him in an editorial position because he was black. Undeterred, he became a circulation manager and learned the business side of journalism while mentoring and managing the young Attucks students who delivered papers.

Henry Bundles and A'Lelia Mae Perry Bundles circa 1957 at the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company offices in Indianapolis.

Henry Bundles and A’Lelia Mae Perry Bundles circa 1957 at the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company offices in Indianapolis.

He and my late mother, A’Lelia Mae Perry Bundles, married in June 1950. A few years later, he became sales and advertising manager for the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company, the firm founded by her great-grandmother. He was so successful at sales and business development that he was hired away as president and CEO of Summit Laboratories, an international hair care company, that he led to regular rankings on the Black Enterprise 100.

After my mother died in 1976, Daddy helped launch CLD, an organization designed to prepare youth of color to become professional, business and community leaders. When he retired in 2000, he and his team had mentored more than 5,000 Central Indiana students including more than 80% who went on to college. When he was honored at CLD’s fortieth anniversary celebration in 2017, the organization had grown to serve more than 2,000 students each year. It is a testament to the institution he helped build that CLD recently awarded more than $5 million in scholarships at its annual Minority Achievers Awards and Scholarship Gala.

Three generations of CLD alumni hold leadership positions throughout the world in medicine, law, education, finance, media, ministry and other professions. They all remember the mantra Daddy quoted at the beginning of every session: “In Time. On Time. Every Time. Except when ahead of time, and that’s better time.”

It no longer surprises me when I’m making a speech and someone in the audience comes up to let me know that they’re a graduate of CLD. In fact, last week at Voorhees College in Denmark, South Carolina, Gwynth R. Nelson, the school’s Vice President for Institutional Advancement and Development, introduced herself as a proud CLD alumna.

Henry Bundles and Helen Baker Bundles with the 2017 Center for Leadership Development Scholars.

Henry Bundles and Helen Baker Bundles with the 2017 Center for Leadership Development Scholars.

Daddy was a long-time community leader who broke barriers on many boards and organizations as a director of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, a founding director of Midwest National Bank and chairman of the Indianapolis Business Development Foundation.  But I think what he enjoyed most was being an Indianapolis 500 Festival director because a perk of the position was getting to drive one of the 33 limited edition convertible pace cars.

Daddy at Crispus Attucks High School (first row, second from right). He graduated in 1943 when he was 16.

Daddy at Crispus Attucks High School (first row, second from right). He graduated in 1943 when he was 16.

He was a life member of Kappa Alpha Psi, having joined the Alpha Chapter while a student at IU. After he and his wife, Helen Baker Bundles, moved to Sarasota, Florida in the early 2000s, he became active with the local chapter and was recognized as one of the fraternity’s oldest living members.

He remained devoted to his alma mater, joining other graduates as a co-founder of the Neal-Marshal Alumni Club that was created in 1980 to increase African American alumni participation.

This afternoon all I could do was smile as I looked through photographs from Daddy’s 65th birthday party in 1992. He was surrounded by family, friends and business colleagues. My friend John Gentry, a professional photographer, captured the evening perfectly. And my friend, Tony Artis, provided the music.

Of course we ordered a fancy cake and served lots of champagne. But the highlight of the evening was surprising Daddy with a huge platter of red jello with his childhood nickname – “Junebug” — written in whipped cream.

Long ago he’d told me that his family was so poor during the Depression that they couldn’t afford a birthday cake. Instead his mother made a bowl of red jello for her “Junebug” during one of the toughest years.

It was a testament to how far my dad had come and to how much he had helped others realize their dreams. He lived his life as a servant leader. I hope his legacy will be one of inspiring others to do the same.

If you are so inclined, we’d welcome contributions in memory of S. Henry Bundles, Jr. to the Center for Leadership Development ( 2425 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Street, Indianapolis, IN 46208 and to the Neal-Marshall Cultural Center, Indiana University Foundation, PO Box 6460, Indianapolis, IN 46206-6460).

The men of the Alpha Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi at Indiana University in 1948.

The men of the Alpha Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi at Indiana University in 1948.


Daddy on the track team at IU.

Daddy on the track team at IU.

Daddy receiving the Outstanding ROTC cadet award in 1944 from Indiana University president Herman Wells.

Daddy receiving the Outstanding ROTC Cadet Award in 1944 from Indiana University president Herman Wells.

Daddy in the Navy in Hawaii 1946

Daddy in the Navy in Hawaii 1946



Remembering April 4, 1968

We all remember where we were on April 4, 1968. We remember when we first heard that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot. We remember learning soon after that he had died. Indeed, that he had been assassinated.

We already had lived through the assassinations of President Kennedy and Malcolm X. We did not know that Robert Kennedy would be killed two months later.

Depending on where we lived, we either watched the riots on television or saw our neighborhoods burn. In my hometown of Indianapolis, the absence of large scale riots was attributed to a speech Robert Kennedy, then campaigning for president, gave in a park that night in a black neighborhood.

We watched the funeral a few days later. We heard Mahalia Jackson sing “Precious Lord.” We wept as we watched the King children and were in awe at Coretta Scott King’s show of strength and dignity.

“The Armor We Still Need” by A’Lelia Bundles in Rochelle Riley’s The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery (Wayne State University Press 2018)

"The Armor We Still Need" by A'Lelia Bundles in Rochelle Riley's The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery (Wayne State University Press 2018)

“The Armor We Still Need” by A’Lelia Bundles in Rochelle Riley’s The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery (Wayne State University Press 2018)

Last year I included my memories of that day and the months that followed in an essay I wrote for Rochelle Riley’s book, The Burden: African Americans and the Enduring Impact of Slavery. Here is an excerpt:

I still can feel the sting. Prickly flares of embarrassment radiate from my ribs. A half-century later, I am isolated and hot. A half-century later, I also am clear that this fiery shame is not justified. But as a teenager, I do not know how to extinguish it. I have no weapons for the battle.
It is the fall of 1968. I am in my high school American history class, in an affluent suburb of Indianapolis. I am the only black student in the classroom, in an overwhelmingly white public school, seated at a desk in the center row, halfway down the aisle.

The day’s topic is the Civil War.

On this day, we are reading from the textbook. My eyes lock on a section titled “Negro Slavery.” It is the first time this semester I have seen a reference to people of African descent. The boldface letters blare from the page.

What I remember from that chapter is this: “Slaves” —not “enslaved people,” as scholars now prefer to say, but “slaves” —were “contented” and well cared for by their kind and benevolent masters.

…I don’t yet know about resistance and revolt. None of my textbooks has included Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman. Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass are absent from the curriculum.

…On April 4, 1968, a few months before that history class, I was elected vice president of my school’s student council. Later that day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. Celebration quickly turned to anguish.

The next morning, I learned that a few white parents had called the school to complain about the election. For the most part, teachers and school administrators, who had mentored and nurtured me, also shielded me from that nasty parental bigotry. The next spring, when I ran for student council president, there were uncomfortable undercurrents around race and gender. There had never been a black female in that position. Another candidate who had been involved in student government was my opponent. The principal’s son, who had little previous leadership involvement, ran for vice president. During my campaign speech, I was heckled by a handful of students from a corner of the auditorium. I lost by a few votes.

I don’t remember any particular sense of sadness or defeat, perhaps because I understood exactly what had been engineered. I moved on. I spent part of the summer at a camp for high school journalists at Northwestern University, in a decidedly more progressive environment. I began my senior year as co-editor of the newspaper and had my say through my columns. With a white male classmate, I co-founded a Human Relations Council to navigate racial tensions and build alliances in a 3,400-member student body that was less than 5 percent black.

It was a year of turmoil for America and a year of radicalization for me. I began a journey of self-discovery and self-education. At some point, I read W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk. That slim volume was an elixir that offered me a combination of intellectual fireworks, historical facts, and much-needed affirmation.

The Burden includes essays by Rochelle Riley, Herb Boyd, Charlene Carruthers, Patrice Gaines, Paula Madison, Julianne Malveaux, Vann Newkirk, Leonard Pitts, Tim Reid, DeWayne Whickham and Tamara Winfrey-Harris.

You can purchase The Burden here.

Madam C. J. Walker’s 150th Birthday (December 23, 2017)

Madam C. J. Walker was born 150 years ago on December 23, 1867.

Madam C. J. Walker was born 150 years ago on December 23, 1867.

Madam C. J. Walker was born Sarah Breedlove on December 23, 1867 on the same Delta, Louisiana plantation where her parents and older siblings had been enslaved before the Civil War.

Orphaned at seven and a poorly paid washerwoman in St. Louis until she was 38 years old, she had become America’s wealthiest self-made businesswoman by the time of her death in 1919.

Walker was known as an entreprenuer, hair care industry pioneer, philanthropist, patron of the arts and political activist. From her company headquarters in Indianapolis, she provided jobs and economic independence for thousands of African American women. She began to develope an international sales force in 1913 when she visited Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, Costa Rica and Panama.

In August 1917, she hosted one of the first large national conventions for women entrepreneurs. In May 1919, her $5,000 gift to the NAACP’s anti-lynching fund was the largest charitable contribution the organization had ever received at the time. She supported the careers of many notable African American musicians and artists.

When she died at Villa Lewaro, her Irvington, New York estate on May 25, 1919, she left more than $100,000 to African American schools, organizations and institutions.

Among the many ways her legacy still lives

For more information about Madam Walker visit and

Biographies of Walker by A’Lelia Bundles

  • On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker (Scribner/Washington Square Press)
  • All about Madam C. J. Walker (Cardinal Publishing)
  • Madam Walker Theatre Center: An Indianapolis Treasure (Arcadia)
  • Madam C. J. Walker: Entrepreneur (Chelsea House)

Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones tells the kind of Civil War era story that should have been on Hollywood screens a long time ago. And before that it should have been in the history textbooks I read in the 1950s and 1960s. Especially since it is based on real people and real events.

Its gory battlefield opening is as bloody, deadly and heart-stopping as Steven Spielberg’s Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan. Blown off faces and sawed off limbs confirm that war is hell. But when military nurse Newton Knight deserts his Confederate unit in 1862 and heads back to Jones County, Mississippi, it’s clear this is not just another war movie.

Like his neighbors, he’s a poor white farmer. But unlike most of them, he realizes they’re pawns sent to fight a war to preserve the wealth and power of plantation owners. “It ain’t my fight,” he tells another white soldier. “I don’t own no slaves. Ain’t gonna get rich selling that cotton.”

As a deserter, he makes his way to a swamp hideaway where he’s protected by a band of black fugitives from a nearby plantation. Together they form a guerilla army that wins battles and wreaks havoc across three counties, staying in tact until the end of the war in April 1865.



The key roles are played by Matthew McConaughey as Newt Knight, Mahershala Ali as Moses (the escapee who later helps lead the Jones Company) and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rachel (the creole woman who helps Knight flee and who becomes his common law wife).

Many reviewers find the movie rambling and long. Director Ross did try to cover a lot of territory by continuing the story beyond the war through Reconstruction and with flash-forwards into the mid-20th Century. I understand why he did that: He knew that most Americans either didn’t learn this history in school or if they did, what they were taught is probably inaccurate. In fact Ross anticipated the need to educate by creating a Free State of Jones website with a mountain of historical information.

The length didn’t bother me. Maybe I’m just hungry for this version of American history with some truth-telling about how poor whites were manipulated during and after the Civil War, during Reconstruction, throughout the Jim Crow era and into the 21st century. It feels very timely to me in this election year when working class, under-educated white men are angry, but still believing the okey-doke and blaming the wrong villain. It resonates  when income inequality is the source of so much pain and when class is so rarely critiqued with historical and racial context.

Here are the questions I am pondering after watching Free State of Jones: What if more white farmers like Newton Knight had joined forces with people like Moses and Rachel? What if the doctrine of white superiority and race-based political disenfranchisement and economic discrimination had not been such potent weapons in our history? What if Reconstruction had not turned into so-called Redemption when planters regained control and sharecropping became slavery by another name? Would American schools be just as segregated now in many places as they were at the time of Brown v. Board of Education? Would today’s angry white men think immigrants were the reason the Golden Era of manufacturing jobs is over? Would Abigail Fisher really believe that five students of color were all that stood between her and a slot at the University of Texas?

Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in FREE STATE OF JONES

Matthew McConaughey and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in FREE STATE OF JONES

There’s a lot to say about the movie, but in the interest of time, I want to post this while you still can make it to the theater on opening weekend. So I’m sharing some excerpts from reviews by people who critique movies for a living.

A. O. Scott in the New York Times writes:  “Directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) with blunt authority and unusual respect for historical truth, Free State of Jones explores a neglected and fascinating chapter in American history. Mr. Ross consulted some of the leading experts in the era — including Eric Foner of Columbia University, whose Reconstruction is the definitive study, and Martha Hodes of New York University, author of a prizewinning study of interracial sexuality in the 19th-century South — and has done a good job of balancing the factual record with the demands of dramatic storytelling. The result is a riveting visual history lesson, whose occasional didacticism is integral to its power.”

Free State of Jones is careful not to suggest that the conditions endured by disenfranchised white and enslaved black Mississippians were identical. The system may be rigged against both, but in different ways.”

“…The romance between a white man and an enslaved black woman is, to say the least, a delicate issue for a movie like this to deal with, but [director Gary] Ross handles this and other fraught matters with impressive tact and sensitivity. The film does not minimize the violence of slavery, including the sexual violence that was the daily experience of women like Rachel, but it also refrains from turning cruelty into spectacle.”

“…Which is not to say that Free State of Jones is a subtle movie. Why should it be? There is nothing wrong with a story that has clear heroes and villains, especially when such roles have been misconceived for so long. The wily and charismatic Newton Knight is a revisionist archetype, a white Southern rebel fighting against the mythology that such figures usually embody.”

“…It is obvious to Newton, and certainly to Moses, that the Glorious Cause of the Confederacy was a rapacious and exploitative cotton-based capitalist economy, and that the resistance to Reconstruction was intended to restore that system. This view reflects the current scholarly consensus, but much of American popular culture, like much of American politics, remains besotted by the old mythology. Freedom is a long struggle.”

Washington Post reviewer Ann Hornaday is less congratulatory: “In interviews, Ross has insisted that he didn’t want Free State of Jones to become another white savior movie, but that’s precisely what it is, especially during scenes when the murderous injustice of slavery is refracted through Knight’s frustrated tears. Again, this is where Ross, who wrote the script from a story by Leonard Hartman, might have made an enormous difference with just a slight tweak, reframing the narrative to focus more on Knight’s alliance with a former slave named Moses (a composite character, played in a breakout performance by Mahershala Ali), or his relationships with Serena and Rachel, which according to the historical record were vexingly complex, and grew more so as time wore on.”

“Instead, Ross seems intent on presenting Knight as a charismatic visionary, cut from the same zealous cloth as John Brown — an appealing image for a star vehicle, but one that seems simplistic and self-congratulatory in a cinematic era defined by 12 Years a Slave and Selma on the one hand and by Nate Parker’s upcoming The Birth of a Nation on the other. Attractively photographed by Benoit Delhomme, Free State of Jones possesses verdant, atmospheric beauty and some occasionally striking iconography, especially when Knight is rallying the local womenfolk to defend their homes with long rifles and level-eyed aim. And the political critiques embedded within its epochal moment — when economic, racial and sexual oppression converged so violently — make for fruitful reflection, if not always pulse-quickening viewing. As gratifying as it is to see forgotten history brought to light, it’s disappointing, too: There’s an epic story to be told within Free State of Jones, but this white-knight tale isn’t it.”

Soraya Nadia McDonald at also thinks it does not escape the pitfalls of the “white savior” cliche. She writes: “Because Free State of Jones concentrates so singularly on making McConaughey the hero of the film, it ends up being a series of missed opportunities. We don’t get any indication of how Newt’s black swamp mates feel about his presence, which implies their feelings about the matter are unimportant. We don’t get a much-needed illustration of Rachel’s sexual agency after repeated displays of the trauma she’s experienced. We never see Rachel invite Newt to touch her or to have sex with her, because we don’t see them have sex at all. We don’t see anything that indicates a clear yes from her. We only see her visibly pregnant, carrying Newt’s child.”

Free State of Jones’ problem isn’t just that it’s built around McConaughey — because he’s considered a bankable movie star and, according to outdated logic, more likely to ensure a return on the film’s $65 million budget. It’s that his Newt Knight character is one of the most egregious examples of the white savior archetype in modern cinema. This might have been a respectable movie for McConaughey in 2006 — the year Crash won the Oscar for best picture.”

“These days? It doesn’t even begin to clear the bar.”

“Thanks to films and television series such as Roots, Selma, 12 Years a Slave and the fourth season of Orange is the New Black, we know what it’s like to see pop culture that addresses race from the perspective of someone other than a white man. More and more, modern audiences are demanding it, which is why you see The Hollywood Reporter continually talking about how Roots was revamped for the age of Black Lives Matter, or how Orange is the New Black was influenced directly by the same movement.”


SOME FINAL THOUGHTS: So, yes, in this debate about films that perpetuate the “white savior” model of casting and storying-telling, Hornaday and McDonald are right to raise this concern. Director Ross moved the needle, but apparently not to everyone’s satisfaction.  I, too, am weary of the “white savior” theme, but there were many moments when it was clear that the director made efforts to show that African Americans weren’t passive in their emancipation. Newt’s son survives because Rachel uses herbal medicine to save him. He escapes because a black servant leads him to safety into the swamp, where Rachel finds him and takes him to the hideaway. He survives because black fugitives allow to recover from his wounds in their safe haven. Bits of dialogue between Newt and Moses suggest that they are equals as men. Ultimately it’s Newt’s story. And, yes, Rachel and Moses’s story would be different. So let’s work on that story and that movie and the hundreds of stories that need to be transformed into film and video.