The “Free State of Jones” may have been deemed a bomb at the box office, but this flawed film brings important aspects of American history to light. In 2016, we’re beyond the romantic nostalgic visions of a “Gone with the Wind” South, where the black slaves were under a benevolent guardianship of their white masters. Yet now it is time to break the concept of a united white Southern population. That is what “Free State of Jones” destroys.
Based on the books “The Free State of Jones” (by Victoria E. Bynum) and The State of Jones” (by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer), the movie illustrates the grim Civil War, beginning with the Battle of Corinth in 1862. This is the second year of the Civil War (12 April 1861 – 9 May 1865). The movie focuses on a poor farmer, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who is a medic in the Confederate Army.
Historically, in 1862, the 20-month term of most of the original enlistees was expiring, but the war wasn’t ending any time soon. Conscription (draft) was also taking men away from the plantations, leaving white women and elderly women in charge of black slaves. President Abraham Lincoln had not yet issued the Emancipation Proclamation (1 January 1863), but the Congress had just passed a law prohibiting slavery in all and current future U.S. territories on 19 June 1862. This did not extend to the states. In July, the Confiscation Act was passed that dealt with the punishment for acts of treason against the U.S. and the seizure of property of those convicted. This formed the basis of the Emancipation Proclamation.
To protect the plantations and forestall a possible slave rebellion, the Confederate Congress passed the Twenty Slave Law on 11 October 1862 which was part of the Second Conscription Act of 1862. Simplistically, for every 20 slaves, a white male could be exempted from serving in the army. That meant that the rich didn’t have to serve and it also allowed for an overseer exemption for two or more plantations within five miles of each other with twenty or more slaves altogether. This was later amended, but the damage had been done. The small and poor farmers felt discriminated against.
Chaffing under the resentment of the Twenty Slave Law and disturbed when he finds his young nephew has been sent unprepared, Newton Knight attempts to save his nephew, Daniel (Jacob Lofland) only to be pressured into participating in a suicidal rush from the trenches. He tried to hold back with his nephew, hoping to run to the forest, and delays, but the nephew naively stands and gets shot. Attempting to save his nephew runs to the makeshift hospitals set up in tents, but if there is a two-tiered system for rich whites and poor whites in the draft, there is also one in medical care. No one tends to his nephew who dies untreated.
Knight deserts, determined to take his nephew home. Not only is he deserting, but he is also stealing a Confederate Army mule. Desertion was common, but not originally treated as a serious offense. At the time of this movie, Confederate general Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson had already publicly executed three deserters on 19 August 1862.
The Battle of Corinth is 3-4 October 1862 in Corinth, Mississippi. Current day Corinth, Mississippi is a little over four hours north from Jones County by car. On foot, the journey from Corinth, south to Jones County is 85 hours according to Google maps or 3 and a half days without sleep. Newton left in November.
When Newton returns to his wife Serena (Keri Russell), he learns from other small farmers that the Confederate Army troops are taking crops and livestock for the troops. Although the rate is supposed to be 10 percent, the practice is that everything that can be used is taken. While aiding a family resisting a Confederate raid, Newton is chased in injured by slave-hunting dogs. Aided by an educated slave woman, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) he escapes to the swamps where runaway slaves have already set up a makeshift community. The leader of the escaped slaves, Moses Washington cares for Newton.
The Siege of Vicksburg (Warren County, Mississippi) from 18 May to 4 July 1863 results in more deserters fleeing from the Confederate Army and finding their way to the swamps of Jones County. Vicksburg is about 2 hours and 20 minutes northwest of Jones County by car and 42 hours by foot.
Newton organizes the Confederate deserters with the escaped slaves into a militia that fights the the Confederate troops and the tax-in-kind raids, eventually occupying and controlling what becomes the pro-Union Free State of Jones.
Throughout this Civil War tale, the 1950s story of Newton’s great-great-great grandson, Davis Knight is interspersed. The jump forward to the 1948 legal case where Davis was on trial for marrying a white woman. Davis appeared white, but he was, by his great grandmother Rachel Knight, part black. While the movie dramatization makes the Davis Knight marriage to June Lee Spradley seem romantic, the romance didn’t last long. Even though the couple prevailed on appeal when the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the verdict in 1949 and the prosecuting attorney declined to retry, the couple eventually divorced.
The film doesn’t hint at dissolution of the Davis Knight-June Lee marriage. Nor does it deal convincingly with Newton’s adultery. Serena and Rachel appear to accept the situation. Maybe it’s the peculiarity of Southern blended plantations families makes for different attitudes in small farmers. Serena is only shown as being the mother of one son with Newton when they actually had nine kids.
McConaughey doesn’t display his usual charm or his sometimes flakey slacker attitude. He has unruly facial hair and spends most of the time dirty with greasy hair. The script makes him into a Robin Hood. Russell’s Serena has little to do except frown and look pensive.
As Davis Knight, since the modern audience is likely sympathetic to his plight, Brian Lee Franklin has little to do except look nostalgically heroic and earnestly in love. We learn little about June Lee and her feelings about race.
The Blu-ray as a short documentary about the filming and about the real Newton Knight and that is worth looking at. While I found the film didn’t develop the characters of Rachel and Serena well and the possible conflict between them as wives and mothers and the movie was lacking a strong cohesive tie between the story of Newton and Davis Knight, I still feel that this movie touches on important themes of the class in the Deep South, rebellion against the Confederacy and blended families in the South that included members of both races.