Free State of Jones, which stars Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a Confederate Army deserter who led a multi-racial uprising against the Confederate government in south-east Mississippi, is that rarest of Hollywood productions, an openly leftist film about the United States Civil War. If it hasn’t gotten more attention I think it’s probably for two reasons. The writing is uneven. As Godfrey Chesire argues on rogerebert.com, Free State of Jones drags for an hour, then tries to pack too much of the plot the the second half. More importantly, a leftist movie has to appeal to leftists, and American leftists, in general, have never been particularly interested in the the United States Civil War. They’re also difficult to please.
Some critics have have dismissed Free State of Jones as a “white savior” film. Except for how Matthew McConaughey’s terrific performance “saves” the mediocre script writing, I don’ t think the argument holds much water. Not every film about a white man who hates slavery and the oppression of black people is a “white savior” movie. More accurately I think Free State of Jones is a working-class movie. Newton Knight doesn’t rebel against the Confederacy because he’s anti-racist, but because he resents the idea that he’s a “poor man fighting a rich man’s war.”
I suppose its testament to how effective “lost cause” propaganda has been that most Americans know all about the Union Army draft (and about Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus) but much less about the far more oppressive Confederate Army draft, which exempted plantation owners who possessed more than twenty slaves. Most of Scarlett O’Hara’s beaus never got anywhere near the Battle of Gettysburg or the Battle of Atlanta. They spent the war going on slave patrols and chasing down deserters. Free State of Jones opens at the Second Battle of Corinth, a major battle in Mississippi where the Union Army under William Rosecrans defeated the Confederate Army under Earl Van Dorn and Sterling Price. While not quite Shiloh or Chickamauga, the Second Battle of Corinth was a nasty, bloody affair. It produced over ten thousand casualties, including almost two thousand Confederate deserters.
Unlike the putrid Ted Turner Gettysburg film — which plays like a fun weekend at the Civil War reenactment — Free State of Jones gets the war exactly right. Weapons had far outstripped military tactics. Newton Knight’s Regiment moves forward in closely packed ranks right into a line of Union artillery, which, loaded with grapeshot and scrap metal, turns young men and boys into lumps of mangled flesh as quickly as their commanders can feed them into the meat grinder. Knight, a medic, dutifully carries the wounded back to the medical tent — and the weapons of the day had also outstripped the medical technology of the day — growing more and more embittered with every broken teenager he dumps on the table screaming for his mother. After his own cousin, who doesn’t seem to be much more than fifteen or sixteen, shows up at Corinth after being drafted, and is shot through the chest by a mini ball, Knight’s had enough, and he heads back to Jones Country, determined never again to fight for the Confederacy. The situation on the home front only validates his decision that the government of Jefferson Davis is more of an enemy than the government of Abraham Lincoln. The Confederate Army, which regularly confiscates supplies, and which enforces an oppressive level of taxation on poor white farmers, is an army of occupation. Knight finds himself growing more and more sympathetic to the local black population, especially a young woman named Rachel, with whom he eventually becomes lovers.
There’s no question that Newton Knight overshadows every other character in Free State of Jones. He’s a traditional patriarch who ends up living in a polygamous household with two women, one black and one white. The Free State of Jones, however, the government Knight and his followers set up in southeast Mississippi after their armed insurrection against the Confederate authorities is not a dictatorship. On the contrary, Knight leads by example and moral authority. His followers, including a white man who accepts an amnesty deal from the Confederate Army, only to be hanged along with his children, can and do leave at any time they want. For Newton Knight, being a “nigger” has nothing to do with skin color. A “nigger” is any man, black or white, who submits to the authority of a government controlled by the rich. His right hand man, a black man named Moses Washington, is a “free man” even before Sherman’s Army breaks the Confederacy and Lincoln introduces the Thirteenth Amendment. The language may be offensive but Newton Knight is a genuinely colorblind man who thinks that blacks are fully the equal of whites.
I was going to say that I wished Free State of Jones gave Moses as much screen time as it gave Newton Knight, but then I realized he’s arguably the hero of the last third of the movie. Mahershala Ali, a fine actor, is simply overshadowed by McConaughey like everybody else. After the war, Moses Washington tries, but fails, to live up to both his first name and his last name, organizing black voters, and becoming, along with Knight, a stalwart of the Republican Party in Jones County, trying to lead his people out of the wilderness to become the father of his country. But Free State of Jones is true to history. Radical Reconstruction, which gave Moses Washington the space to organize, is shut down after the disputed Election of 1876. In the following decades, the Klan would reimpose white supremacy. Moses is lynched and castrated. Newton Knight lives on into the 1920s. A subplot involving Knight’s partially black grandson, who is sentenced to five years in jail in the 1940s for his marriage to a white woman, has been widely criticized, but it’s also true to history. In spite of the efforts of freedom fighters like Moses Washington and Newton Night to liberate the South from class oppression and white supremacy, they not only failed. They’ve been forgotten.
Sadly, I don’t think Free State of Jones will succeed in reviving interest in the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction, but I do know this. If someone finally makes the great movie about John Brown that deserves to be made, he or she should cast McConaughey. It would be the performance of a lifetime.