Like last year’s “Trumbo”, “The Free State of Jones” is guaranteed to earn my vote for best film of 2016 for its combination of film-making genius and political commitment. If “Trumbo” might have been a success with someone other than Bryan Cranston in the title role, it was his presence that made you feel like you were watching the legendary screenwriter himself rather than an actor. Matthew McConaughey elevates “The Free State of Jones” in the same way. Present in every scene, he is utterly convincing as the anti-secessionist guerrilla leader who was the walking embodiment of what Noel Ignatiev called the Race Traitor.
Written and directed by Gary Ross, “The Free State of Jones” is everything that the overhyped “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained” were not. It is an honest attempt to engage with the historical period it portrays even if it takes liberties with the events surrounding the rebellion of Newton Knight. As I will point out later in this article, they made for a more powerful film with a singular vision even if the truth was sacrificed.
After covering the film, I will discuss the actual historical record contained in Victoria Bynum’s “The Free State of Jones”, upon which the film was based. While hardly a film to be taken seriously, I will also say a few things about “Tap Roots”, the 1948 film based on Mississippi journalist James Street’s novel of the same title that was a loose adaptation of the Newton Knight story. The film is entirely forgettable if not unbearable, as well as a symbol of Hollywood’s racism, even when it decided to make a film based on ostensibly anti-racist material.
We first meet Newton Knight in a bloody battle that is about as graphic as any Hollywood film I have seen since “Saving Private Ryan”. Serving as a medic, Knight is overwhelmed by the severed limbs and ruptured abdomens that are beyond any doctor’s ability to treat. When the battle subsides, he meets up with men from Jones County who have ended up in the same regiment as him, a common feature of the bond of geography and ideology in both North and South.
When Knight learns that soldiers who own “20 Negros” are being sent home to look after their properties, he is in disbelief. Like most men from Jones County, he owned nothing but the log cabin he lived in and the hogs and corn field he looked after. They were yeoman farmers with almost no class interest in dying on behalf of the plantation owners who seceded from the Union. As the cry went up from the guerrilla movement, they saw it as a “Rich Man’s War and a Poor Man’s Fight”.
When a conscripted teenaged nephew is soon killed in another battle, he resolves to take the dead body back to Jones County where he can get a proper burial even if this means being charged with desertion.
Back on native ground, Knight soon becomes a target of local Confederate law enforcement for both being a deserter and interceding on behalf of neighbors who have been forced to turn over corn and pigs to the army as part of a hated wartime tax. When they pursue him with bloodhounds, he manages to find refuge in the swamp with a band of runaway slaves. He is led to them by a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who eventually becomes both his lover and a spy for the pro-Union armed struggle Knight will lead.
As the class conflict between poor farmers and armed Confederate tax-in-kind agents deepens, Knight decides that the only recourse is to build a popular resistance based in the swamp that the enemy’s horses cannot negotiate. Once they settle in, their headquarters becomes a staging ground for raids on the Confederate troops and the slave-owners whose interests they protect. It also becomes a place where their yeoman values are implemented in a kind of rough-hewn commune. Runaway slaves are treated as equals and when they are not, Newton Knight steps in to defend them against racism.
Seen in terms of genre, “The Free State of Jones” follows in the footsteps of “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, the 1938 vehicle for Errol Flynn, and the more recent “Braveheart”. When it comes to battles between yeoman farmers and an oppressive, bloodsucking elite, it is natural to cheer for the underdog. The Sheriff of Nottingham to Newton Knight’s Robin Hood is one Lieutenant Barbour who views the pro-Union guerrillas as the lowest scum on earth, particularly as race traitors. Another villain is James Eakins, the plantation owner who beats Rachel for the offense of eavesdropping on his daughters’ spelling lessons. Her only desire is to become literate, a crime in the eyes of the Mississippi slave masters.
The film tracks the battles between Knight’s militia and Confederate troops sent in to smash them and restore law and order in Jones County. Before each battle, Knight rallies the troops in speeches that are a mixture of scripture and Jeffersonian yeoman values. His commitment to racial and social equality continues even after the Civil War is over. He takes the side of former slaves as they exercise their right to vote even after it becomes obvious that the South will remain as oppressive as ever. His only recourse is to live among people, both Black and white, who share his values in the outskirts of the village of Soso in Jones County. If Mississippi and the USA for that matter choose segregation, he persists in building counter-institutions that correspond to his democratic and anti-racist values including the right of people to love each other whatever the color of their skin.
As a subplot that is thematically related but historically problematic, we see crosscuts to the trial of Davis Knight in 1948. He was the great-grandson of Newton Knight who was charged with violating the Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws. Not only is he a symbol of the ongoing fight against racism but a reminder that the Deep South was a deeply segregated place until recently. If Jim Crow disappeared in the 1960s, you cannot help but be reminded of the more recent period when cops can act like the KKK wearing a badge.
Before becoming a film-maker, Gary Ross worked on the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. One might assume that there is a connection between his 2012 “The Hunger Games” and his most recent film, since both include protagonists taking on evil plutocrats. As it happens, the new film is based on American history even if Ross takes liberties.
Ross probably was conscious of rewriting a history that he was intimately familiar with. In an interview with Slashfilm, he describes his engagement with the Civil War scholarship:
It was a tremendous amount of research. I don’t think I did anything but read for a couple of years. And I mean scores of books. I was a visiting fellow at Harvard for a couple of years. I studied under the tutelage of a professor there named John Stauffer, who was head of the American Civilization Department. I spent a lot of time in Jones County visiting it and meeting the local people and getting the local flavor and doing kind of a visceral history.
He even understood that a version of the traditional happy ending for “The Free State of Jones” would have been a much worse falsification of history than any liberties he took with the events described in the film:
Well, you know, that version would have been the white savior movie. That version would have been, “Oh, there’s a triumphant victory, and everything is fine,” and we tie it up with a Hollywood bow and there’s a happy ending. But we all know there wasn’t a happy ending. No sooner was technical emancipation granted than the former Confederates got their land and their power back and began passing laws which were called The Black Codes that were a form of re-enslavement and driving people back to the plantation, driving freed men back to the plantation.
If Victoria Bynum’s “The Free State of Jones” is a benchmark for the film’s veracity, it gets high marks in many ways. First and foremost, it describes the social conditions of the county’s yeoman farmers accurately. These were people who relied heavily on the animals they raised and the corn they used to feed them, without which they faced certain ruin. Ross creates a world in his film that evokes the Piney Woods region of Mississippi that was inhospitable to cotton growing and as such made the rise of an agrarian bourgeoisie impossible.
Who were these remarkable people who went against the values of the slave-owners? Considering the stereotypical view of white Southerners that persists to this day, Gary Ross deserves to be honored for telling the kind of story that was not even found in Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. The name of Newton Knight does not appear at all.
The Knight family came from North Carolina, where they were small farmers and forced to seek new land in the deep south after tobacco plantations gobbled up most of the available land. Their ancestors were members of the Regulator Movement that was one of the first armed resistances to British rule in the colonies. Suffering from onerous taxation, they took up arms against the wealthy. In other words, it was exactly the kind of fight they would pursue decades later in Mississippi.
While it is probably unreadable, Jimmy Carter wrote a historical novel titled “The Hornet’s Nest” that was a tribute to the Regulator Movement. The NY Times reviewed it in 2003:
”The Hornet’s Nest,” according to the book’s acknowledgments, was seven years in the making. And its somewhat sensational title refers not to Washington or Congress or even Camp David, but instead to an obscure and ferocious enclave of northern Georgia partisans and militiamen in the Revolutionary War, a guerrilla-like group to which, in his recent memoir, ”An Hour Before Daylight,” Carter says several of his ancestors belonged.
Another important element in the film that is consistent with Bynum’s book is the prominent role played by women as auxiliary fighters in Jones County. In one dramatic highlight, Newton Knight arms a mother and her two young daughters and steels their nerves to hold off a band of Confederate soldiers who come to their farm to carry off livestock and crops.
From the point of view of law and order in Jones County, the women were as much of a threat as the men especially Rachel, who was a fighter for Black emancipation as well as Newton Knight’s lover. Where Gary Ross took considerable liberties was making her the slave of the aforementioned villainous James Eakins whereas in fact she was actually his grandfather Jackie Knight’s slave. Despite his connections to the Regulator Movement, Jackie Knight had no problems adopting the mode of production that made the white race ready to fight for its survival. While by no means as wealthy as the big agrarian bourgeoisie, Jackie Knight had left yeomanry long behind him.
Another liberty taken with historical accuracy was the portrayal of Davis Knight as willing to go to prison for the love of his life. In reality, Davis Knight was interested in one thing and one thing only, to establish his white identity. Given the hell of Mississippi segregation, his decision was understandable.
What is more difficult to understand is the effort of Newton Knight’s ancestors to portray him as indifferent to Black lives and—worse—a common brigand. His son Thomas wrote a book titled “The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight” that embraced his Unionist stand but said nothing about his close ties to African-Americans. His grandniece Ethel Knight went much further. In 1951 she published “The Echo of the Black Horn”, a violent screed that accused him of being a thieving traitor to the glorious Confederate cause. Above all, she hated him for loving Rachel Knight—the act of a race traitor.
Unlike John Brown, Newton Knight was not an abolitionist prophet. His main grievance was effectively “taxation without representation” since he regarded the Confederacy as illegal. Would he have had a different attitude if he had been a man of property? Maybe so. At least he should be given credit for putting his life on the line for the principles that the Republic stood for, even if the Constitution regarded Blacks as only three-fifths of a man.
Ultimately the salient message of “The Free State of Jones” is that class trumps race. In the left’s perpetual engagement with the central conundrum of American politics, there is a tendency to lose track of what motivates whites to make common cause with Blacks. One of the most important points made in Victoria Bynum’s book is the importance of class during the Civil War for the people of Jones County that continued into the 20th century.
Abandoned by the Republican Party after the end of Reconstruction, the pro-Unionist yeoman farmers of Jones County were naturally drawn to the Populist Party that essentially reflected their class interests. In 1892 20 percent of Jones County voters cast their ballot for James Weaver, the Populist Party’s presidential candidate.
The most prominent leaders of the party in Jones County were the sons of Jasper and Riley Collins, two of Newton Knight’s leading lieutenants. At the statewide convention in 1895, they were elected delegates from Jones County. The racist Democratic Party press assailed the Populists as “disgruntled and disappointed office seekers” who hoped to seduce “Republicans and negroes” into voting for its candidates. It also identified them with Radical Republicanism during Reconstruction and warned that “the bottom rail will never be on top again in Mississippi.”
Like Thomas and Ethel Knight, the Populists eventually succumbed to racist pressures and abandoned their natural allies. As a sign of the confused politics of the Deep South, poor farmers voted for a bigot like Theodore Bilbo who backed progressive economic measures with racist invective.
James Street was a native Mississippian who grew up near Jones County and hated racial injustice but valued his Southern heritage. As such, it was natural for him to explore the Newton Knight story and turn it into a novel loosely based on his exploits. Wikipedia has a highly revealing story on his most unusual death:
Street died of a heart attack in Chapel Hill, N.C., on September 28, 1954, at age 50.
He was in Chapel Hill to present awards for excellence in radio broadcasting at a banquet, for which the main speaker was a “Reporter From the Pentagon” (as described by Scott Jarrad, a radio journalist who was to receive an award, who did not give the man’s name). According to Jarrad, the “Reporter from the Pentagon” made a pure power politics argument in favor of preventive war against the Communist nations. Street, who was to present the awards, speaking after that main address, vehemently attacked the position put forward by the “Reporter from the Pentagon,” in a spontaneous rant Jarrad described as “an explosion,” laced with mild profanity; “in a word, he was magnificent.”
Following that rant, however, again according to Jarrad, Street presented the broadcasting awards warmly and politely. Jarrad specifically mentioned the firm and affectionate handshake from Street at the presentation of the award. However, shortly after the ceremony, Street “laid his head on the table like a baby,” dead of a fatal heart attack. Jarrad speculated that the “explosion” of Street’s vehement rant may have been the stress that caused his fatal heart attack.
I can only say that I am surprised that “Tap Roots”, the 1948 film based on his fictionalized account of Knight’s pro-Union guerrilla warfare, didn’t do him in four years earlier.
This was a film that said virtually nothing about the pro-Union sympathies of the Jones County fighters. It revolved around the futile campaign of a plantation owner named Hoab Dabney to disaffiliate from the Confederacy because the people of Lebanon Valley only sought to work in peace. Dabney is played by Ward Bond, a vicious McCarthyite. When the Confederate cavalry annihilates his followers, a Whig newspaper man played by Van Heflin who fought on his side denounces him as a trouble-maker who misled his followers into a useless rebellion. In one of the odder scenes in this very odd movie, Dabney wanders about the battlefield talking to himself after the fashion of King Lear.
The screenplay was written by Alan Le May, the author of “The Searchers” that was adapted for John Ford’s classic film. The sheer stupidity and bad politics of this film makes you wonder if “The Searchers” has been overrated, as I have long suspected.
Let me conclude with an excerpt from Victoria Bynum’s take on “Tap Roots”, which is contained on her invaluable website Renegade South.
The movie makers treated viewers to a sort of poor man’s Gone with the Wind—except that Hoab Dabney himself (the cinematic version of Newt Knight) appeared as anything but poor, living in his recently-departed father’s opulent mansion with slaves that he apparently inherited from dad! Never mind that neither the real Newt Knight—nor his father—owned slaves. I had to laugh, though, when Hoab Dabney first appeared on screen. Veteran actor Ward Bond appears as a wealthy, middle-aged Hoab, complete with mutton-chop sideburns, a crisp white shirt, black vest and cravat, and sporting a gold watch chain that hangs fetchingly across his portly mid-section!
Let’s just say that Ward Bond is no Matthew McConaughey. . . .
What were Tap Roots’ filmmakers thinking, you ask? They were thinking of Gone with the Wind, that’s what. Never mind that that wildly successful movie was dedicated to the principles of Lost Cause history, with its images of a solid white South and happy slaves. The plot lines, clichés, and characters of Gone with the Wind were shamelessly borrowed, but with a twist—and it’s only a twist—of Southern white opposition to secession from the Union. There is no people’s movement here—only the Dabneys’ assertion of their “freedoms” and dominion over their beloved Lebanon Valley. The men who join the provincial, hardheaded Dabneys in asserting their individual prerogative to remain “neutral” during the war display no agency and no ideas; they merely follow. Although the phrase, “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight,” is briefly flashed on the screen, it has no relevance to the story presented.