Southern Movie 37: “The Free State of Jones” (2016)
After writing a recent Southern Movie post about the sentimentalized Civil War movie Drums from the Deep South, it seemed appropriate to write one as well about an un-sentimentalized Civil War movie: 2016’s The Free State of Jones. Not only is this film brutal and stark, its scenario is an uncommon one for the mid-1800s South: a hard-working white man in Mississippi who understands the Civil War and the Confederacy to be nothing more than poor men dying in the service of rich men’s interest. Based on the true story of Newton Knight, the film combines a Civil War-era story with a latter-day Civil Rights-era twist.
The Free State of Jones opens with a gruesome battle scene. A cadre of stern-faced Confederate soldiers, most of them young, all of them scruffy and dirty, march in formation across a field. As they come to the top of a small hill, Union soldiers are waiting for them and begin to fire. During the smoky melee, we see the ugliness of this kind of war: the men upfront are cut down quickly, men’s bodies are mangled and torn apart by cannonballs and musket fire. Among the carnage appears Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a battlefield nurse, who frantically collects an injured man onto a rolling gurney and carts him quickly from the front to the camp, as shots fly past. We get a sense of Knight’s character here, as he attempts to console the soldier while risking his own life. When they get back to camp and find the medical tent full of men with severe wounds, Knight then strips the soldier’s coat off and presents him illicitly as a wounded officer so he gets preferential treatment.
Later that day, after the furor has died down, Newton and his friend Jasper sit and talk. They see a group of men loading a wagon, and Newton asks Jasper who they are and what they’re doing. Jasper replies that the men are going home to Carolina; due to the newly passed Twenty Negro Law, any man who owns at least twenty slaves gets a pass from fighting in the war on the grounds that they have to be at home managing their business affairs. Newton Knight immediately sees the injustice in this privilege.
Later that night, a small group of men sit around a campfire, as Jasper reads aloud, explaining the Twenty Negro Law. Newton declares that they are all dying for the rich men’s cotton, though another man named Will declares that he is fighting for honor. Newton disagrees, grumbles, and goes into the woods to relieve himself. There he comes across his young kinsman Daniel, no more than a teenager; he is crying and tells Newton that Confederates have come to their home, taken all of the goods and food, and conscripted him into the Mississippi 7th. Already frustrated by the situation, Newton allows the boy to stay with him and says that they will escape the war tomorrow.
The next day, during the fighting, Newton leads Daniel against the tide of the fighting, and the pair try to scramble through the shelling and shooting to flee into the trees. The going is harsh, but it’s working until they run across a small band of Confederates who are trying to outflank the Union troops. Newton lies and says they’re the last survivors of their unit, so the leader tells them to join in. As the rush out of the trench begins, though, Newton holds Daniel back from the charge, so they can continue their run, but the inexperienced boy stands straight up and takes a bullet in the chest. Newton tries to bring the boy to the tent hospital, but it is full again, and he holds Daniel while he dies in the grass under a tree.
Now, Newton has suffered the double-whammy. He has witnessed rich men’s privilege and watched his poor kin die. The next morning, Newton loads Daniel’s body onto a horse to take him home. Though his friends understand, they worry for Newton. He is becoming a deserter and is risking being executed. Newton’s allegiance to his home and family are greater than what he now regards as a bogus cause. He returns on foot to Jones County, Mississippi where he buries Daniel and answers his wife Serena’s questions about what he will do next.
In Jones County, the confiscation of goods from small farmers’ homes continues in the absence of the men who would normally protect their families. Here, we meet our villain Lieutenant Barbour, whose half-dozen lackeys take more than the ten percent that the Confederate government allows itself— they basically take everything, leaving women and children to fend for themselves with no food, no blankets, and no tools. Adding to Newton’s frustrations, there is this iniquity, too, so he vows to a small group of women that he will be their protector now that he is back home.
The next piece in the puzzle is added when Newton’s infant son gets sick, and Serena is unable to get the fever down. Looking for a doctor at a nearby pub, they are referred to a slave woman Rachel, who is an herbalist. She comes and passes the night healing the young child. Newton then shows his gratitude to Rachel by giving her a small bit of gold chain, which is unusual for a white man to do for a slave during this time.
Here, the scenario shifts. As Rachel walks away through a field toward the tree line, the words “85 Years Later . . .” appears on the screen and a voiceover carries us into a late 1940s courtroom scene. The court clerk explains miscegenation charges against Davis Knight, the clean-cut great grandson of Newton Knight, for marrying a white woman when he is one-eighth Negro, effectively making him black in the eyes of Mississippi law. As Davis Knight lowers his eyes in shame, the clerk declares this fact to be so, since his great grandmother was Rachel.
Back in the 1860s, Newton has come to the aid of a neighbor and her three children, to stop the confiscation of her food and blankets by Lt. Barbour. Knowing he will be outmanned and outgunned, Newton arms the woman and her little girls, but also sticks the handles of farm tools out of the holes in the barn walls to make it appear that there is a small army inside. Lt. Barbour first laughs but then is aggravated by being thwarted, and recognizes that Newton is a deserter.
Back home, Newton and Serena argue while he gets ready to escape. Newton tells his wife that he cannot leave these women alone, to which she responds that he is effectively leaving her alone. As Newton flees the men and dogs who’ve come to root him out, a black German shepherd tears up his leg before he kills it with his knife. Now, with a wounded leg and having lost his gun, he goes to Sally, the local pub owner who pointed him to Rachel. She has a slave man who will take him into the swamps to hide.
Newton is then dropped off in the swamps, without food or a gun, to wait. He is told that “they” will be here to get him later. In the darkness, Rachel appears to lead him to a campsite where a handful of black men are clustered around a fire. Newton asks, “Are they runaways?” to which Rachel replies, “Ain’t you?” Of course, the men’s de facto leader Moses, who wears a large, metal harness-like apparatus around his neck and head, is skeptical of their white visitor, but they allow him in anyway.
As Newton gets settled among the men, the plot picks up a little bit. We see that Serena lives under a constant state of surveillance by Confederate soldiers. That transitions back into the 1940s courtroom, where a prosecutor questions an expert about Serena leaving Jones County, Mississippi in late 1863 or early 1864, and thus could not be Davis Knight’s (white) great grandmother. We also see that Rachel is teaching herself to read by observing the master’s children’s lessons, and that she is the object of her master’s salacious affections. Back in the swamps, Newton and Moses get to know each other; Moses explains that he fled when his wife and son were sold and sent to Texas. Newton asks if he wants the harness off his neck, to which Moses responds that the removal would make too much noise and would bring the dogs. Newton then tells Moses that he is a blacksmith and that the dogs and the men can be handled.
In the daylight, the now-armed men – five black and one white – wait for the slave hunters after Newton removes the harness with great clanging of metal. They set up an ambush, and Newton reminds the men that they will only get one shot— so don’t miss! They quickly kill the hunters and dogs in a flurry of gun blasts, and the newly empowered slaves are left briefly to deal with the emotional impact of having the ability to defend themselves. Meanwhile, the relationship between Newton and Rachel grows more romantic.
At this point, a series of black-and-white battle images and some accompanying text move the story forward. We see that it is the middle of the Civil War, 1863 and 1864, and that the South is not faring well . . . The last frame shares that desertions are increasing.
The next thing we see is Newton pulling his friend Jasper out from under a house, and we understand that Jasper has deserted, too. As they approach the swamp base with two other bearded men, we see a camp now full of scruffy white men, including Will, who at the beginning of the movie insisted that the South’s case was honorable. Now emboldened by having others on his side, and with so many men to feed, Newton’s banditry begins. He first preaches to a group of farmers that the Bible instructs them that what a man plants, he ought to keep, and so, he suggests, they should move into the nearby cornfields, pick them clean, and hide the corn from Lt. Barbour and his men. The resentful group agrees, and they get to work. However, Barbour does find some corn in one man’s barn and takes it, but a mass of a few dozen deserters meets Barbour and his men on the road; they take back the corn and steal Barbour’s clothes. Barbour is outmatched by the rebellious deserters in the swamps, and we’re glad that this arrogant and uncaring man is being given a taste of his own medicine.
By now, a new villain has also appeared, Barbour’s superior officer Colonel Elias Hood, who takes the news of the corn raid poorly then appears at Sally’s pub to make a deal to extricate the deserters from the swamp. He offers whiskey and flour and money, claiming that anyone who comes out will not be punished but will simply rejoin the Confederate army. Sally forwards the offer to Newton who turns it down outright, and the hostility is ratcheted up.
The harried Confederates begin burning farms, but the ragtag crew’s morale stays high. They throw a big party in the swamp to thumb their noses at the army that know can’t reach them effectively. We once again see Rachel’s master James Eakins, who takes his jabs at Hood for not being able to get the job done. We also see racial tensions beginning to take shape as the dozens of white Southerners live among the five freed slaves who originally took Newton in. In recognition that Rachel is being raped by her owner, Newton begins burning cotton, an offense that ups the ante. To culminate this part of the film, one farmer, who represents the unsettled element in the camp, convinces a few men and boys that they should turn themselves in. He arranges that, but Col. Hood breaks his word that they will get off scot-free and has them hung. Though Newton opposed the move, he blames himself for their deaths.
An hour-and-a-half into Free State of Jones, with an hour left to go, the movie has established itself as a power-to-the-people story. Newton Knight makes regular remarks that rich families have gotten rich off the hard work of poor people and through the docile acceptance of an unfair system. The film is also very clear that the Confederate representatives, who collect “taxes” in the form of goods and food, are not acting in the best interest of ordinary people. Really, we have yet to see anyone of decent moral character working for the Confederate establishment.
For the most part, Free State of Jones has kept its integrity up to this point, not turning itself into a Die Hard-style action flick (like Mel Gibson’s historical drama The Patriot does). However, for a just a moment, it kind of does. At the real private funeral for the men and boys who were hung, Newton gives a tearful, bitter sermon about how both white and black always seem to end up as “somebody else’s nigger,” and he looks to Moses for an answer about why he is not one: “No one can own a child of God,” he says. Then, at the staged public funeral, the Confederates led by Hood and Barbour guard the cemetery, waiting to capture these now-fugitives, as a few mourners arrive with the coffins. A skirmish begins when one of the women, clothed in black, draws a pistol and blows a soldier’s brains out. Of course, the coward Barbour flees on his horse as men pop out of the coffins and out from under the church, shooting from all directions, and one black-clad woman even hurls over a stone wall Dukes of Hazzard-style while continuing to shoot. Thankfully, that kind of hokey thing doesn’t go on long, and when the battle is over, Newton kills a wounded Hood with a knife inside the church.
In the next scene, Barbour has brought a force to Ellisville, and a battle rages in the streets of the tiny town. We learn from the titling that it is March 1864. Of course, the Confederates are defeated by a cooperative effort, with all the men and women now involved. After their victory, Newton Knight and his ragged array of rebels celebrate, but now they have a new set of problems: infrastructure and supplies. They have prisoners of war to house and guard, and they need guns and ammunition to hold their position in Ellisville. Newton assigns Will to seek help from the Union army, and he himself takes Rachel to an upstairs hotel room, where they share a tender moment.
Though things seem to be going well for Newton and his crew, the Confederates will not accept defeat so easily and neither will his own men accept this situation. With Col. Hood’s body laid on a table, a report is given on the state of affairs in Jones County, Mississippi. A retaliation is planned, and as we watch marching soldiers, the text on the screen tells us that a new colonel is coming with more than a thousand troops. Shortly thereafter, Will returns with a few guns and the news that Gen. Sherman will not help them. Newton protests, but Will says that’s how it is and also tells Newton that some of the men want to flee rather than dig in to fight. Newton disagrees but accepts their will, then stands on the stairs of a white-columned building to declare to the group assembled that they are now – and have apparently always been – on their own. As such, they are forming a Free State of Jones in southeastern Mississippi. In perhaps the most important feature of this new state, Newton affirms racial equality by saying that all men are equal: “if you walk on two legs, you’re a man.”
Free State of Jones is a long movie – well over two hours – but there is a lot to cover. Right after this political declaration, we see that it is April 1865. The Civil War is over, slavery is over, and the Union is reunited, though the South is under Reconstruction. We see tearful reunion of Moses and his wife and son, followed by the swearing in of James Eakins, Rachel’s old slave master, back into the good graces. But, as Eakins fortunes improve, returning to his beautiful white mansion with his smiling family, the fates of Newton, Moses, and the other freedmen are declining. The freedmen want to know where their forty acres and a mule are, and Newton has to tell them that Eakins will keep his land because the federal government has backed away from its promise. Then, Rachel tells Newton, over their small table in the dark, that they must leave the area. He may have fought the powerful men last time, she tells him, but this time he won’t be able to. They and the other blacks must move up to Soso, an isolated patch of ground, and try to make a living there.
Soon after arriving in Soso, Newton gets another surprise. HIs wife Serena returns with his son, who is now a small boy. They have no place to go, and Newton offers to let her stay there. The problem is: Newton now has Rachel as his wife. Though, as Newton ponders what to do and how, Rachel comes out and makes the decision with him. There is another house on the property and they can fix it up. Serena will stay there, too.
Back in the 1940s courtroom, this situation is discussed. The prosecution in the miscegenation case says that Serena Knight left Jones County never to return, but census records show that she did return. The defense lawyer explains the enigmatic scenario: usually there is trouble identifying who the father of a child is, but in this case it is difficult to determine who the mother is. There were two women living with one man on one farm.
The film next takes a turn away from the personal life of Newton Knight and toward the broader history of the South after the Civil War. One afternoon, Moses’ wife comes running to Newton’s house to tell him that Moses has gone to retrieve their son— from what we don’t know. When Newton catches up to Moses he is angry and armed, striding toward the cotton field where his son is being forced to work. Newton joins him, and they are quickly confronted by armed men. In court, we find that the justice of the peace is that old coward Barbour and that the “apprenticeship” scheme is being perpetrated by James Eakins. Though the lieutenant/judge tries with a smirk to suppress Moses and Newton with statutes, Newton will have none of it. He stands up and calls the bluff! Ignoring Barbour’s bashing of the gavel, he throws seven dollars at Eakins, declaring the matter done, and Eakins takes it, shamelessly and with his own smirk.
The last twenty to thirty minutes of Free State of Jones show us the history that we (should) already know, interspersing those scenes with the conviction of David Knight for violating racial codes. After some more black-and-white images and more explanation of how former Confederates connived their way back into power, leading to Radical Reconstruction, we see the formation of the Union League, led in this story by Moses . . . which leads to the Ku Klux Klan, the burning of black churches, and midnight violence against blacks. While Moses is working on voter registration, he is chased down and lynched: castrated and hung from a tree. After this, Newton takes it upon himself to lead nearly two-dozen black men into town to vote Republican. We see a dramatization of how white Southern men engaged in voter suppression and intimidation, though Newton meets their threats with his own, and the defiant outsiders cast their ballots. Text on the screen explains that this continued until the late 1870s. Newton, of course, never gave up on what he believed in, no matter the cost. And though Newton and Rachel were never able to get married, he does leave his 160 acres of land to her. In the middle of the twentieth century, though, his descendant did not fare well for their union. The film does relay that his conviction was overturned, since Mississippi did not want his case to go to the Supreme Court.
Notwithstanding this completely unconventional side of Southern history, Free State of Jones elicited mixed reactions. The film critic Roger Ebert found the screenplay to be flawed, an assessment I agree with, though he found the mid-twentieth century subplot to be a distraction, which I disagree with. He also wrote this:
There’s worthwhile history here, to be sure, but some of it’s tedious while other parts are dubious (e.g., a title tells us that in 1875-76 federal forces were withdrawn from Mississippi even as “Klan activity was on the rise”; in reality, the Klan was effectively suppressed by actions the federal government took in the early 1870s). Eventually, the film’s story feels like it just peters out, without reaching any discernible dramatic or thematic point.
I don’t know how true it is that the “Klan was effectively suppressed” in the decade after the Civil War, though I do I agree that the movie “just peters out.”
The Guardian called the movie a “startling, fiercely violent, superbly photographed and structurally audacious civil war drama,” and “a movie that with enormous confidence operates outside the traditional story arc.” However, the Hollywood Reporter shared my sentiments about the movie’s shortcomings:
But just as the film seems like it’s about to really click into a higher gear, it loses momentum midstream and ultimately becomes didactic in its time-jumping final act. There is much incident: Families are shattered, innocents are hanged, farms and churches are burned and the hell that is war and the fundamental unfairness of life are on abundant display.
And that writer also added later that Free State of Jones “devolved from an engaging historical drama into a compendium of regressive racial developments.” Sadly for this compelling story, Rolling Stone saw it the same way:
If you think a thick, juicy slab of Civil War history can’t be boiled down to 145 minutes of speechifying, stultifying cinema, then grab a seat at Free State of Jones. Like the worst civics lesson, this movie bores away at you till your reactions are dulled.
What I’m driving at is this: everyone seems to agree that the movie presented a compelling story that most of us never knew, but its shift from a bluntly honest action film into a text-driven educational video leaves it with structural/creative schizophrenia. In short, Free State of Jones couldn’t figure out what it wanted to be. Perhaps this story was too big to be told in one movie.
As a portrayal of the South, the movie contains elements both conventional and unconventional, though one reviewer pointed out correctly that there is so much going on that the characters don’t really have room to develop. One disappointment for me was that there was not one single pro-Confederate character who had redeeming traits or who showed any kindness—all of them were all bad, which isn’t accurate or true. Overall, it’s good to have Free State of Jones among available narratives about the Civil War. Too few people read these days, and even fewer read academic histories, so having an approximation of the story of Newton Knight put on the screen is, I would say, a generally positive thing.