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?
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 TheUndefeated.com 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.