07.01.2016
  • United States

Back to the Free State

The Free State of Jones isn't very good entertainment, but it deserves credit for getting much of the story of the Civil War and Reconstruction right.

The Free State of Jones is writer-director Gary Ross’s retelling of the guerilla war fought in the heart of the Deep South by a pro-Union, antislavery, Confederate Army deserter named Newton Knight.

It’s based largely on Sally Jenkins’s and John Stauffer’s research, which they eventually published in the excellent book The State of Jones: The Small Southern County That Seceded From the Confederacy.

Ross’s other inspiration is Eric Foner — the Columbia University historian whom Ross claims to revere “like a god.” Foner provided Ross with a reading list to help him prepare for the film.

Good start. Let’s see how things went wrong from there.

The Right Idea

After consulting the experts, Ross explains, he decided to use his film to establish a history of the Civil War and Reconstruction that counters the pernicious “Lost Cause” narrative still muddling our national understanding of that era. Ross lays out some of his goals for the film in a recent Huffington Post video entitled “Four Myths About the Civil War.” The myths are these:

1. The Civil War was not fought over slavery. (It was.)

2. The South was monolithic in its support of the Confederacy and the institution of slavery. (It wasn’t.)

3. The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment meant immediate emancipation for Southern slaves. (It didn’t. Swiftly enacted repatriation acts gave property and power back to white Southern landowners, and the “Black Codes” anticipated Jim Crow law by radically restricting the freedom of the Southern black population.)

4. The Reconstruction designed to emancipate and empower the Southern black population was a failure. (It didn’t “fail,” it was deliberately destroyed by Southern white supremacists.)

Ross’s aim to tackle all four myths is laudable. But like so many laudable goals, it doesn’t lead to great art or effective entertainment.

It hurts me to report that The Free State of Jones is the kind of film that gets screened in junior high schools — earnest, lumpy, and plodding, full of stodgy subtitles reporting what year it is and which national events will shortly have repercussions for our heroes in some trite illustrative scene.

His heart may be in the right place, but as a filmmaker, Ross is a well-paid hack. He generally does big-budget, high-gloss studio adaptations of bestsellers that go down easy and leave no aftertaste.

The Hunger Games is his main claim to fame, but he seems to have his sights set on ruining particularly good books that contain poignant insights into various eras of American history. Just take a look at Seabiscuit, his dull-witted botch of Laura Hillenbrand’s sensitive horse tale that immerses the reader in the grinding agony of the Great Depression.

Or actually, don’t. Read the book, skip the film.

Critical Support

I’m tempted to give the same advice about The Free State of Jones, but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. If somebody’s trying to get Foner’s arguments on film, how can the end result be wholly bad?

Plus I love movies about the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I can watch them all with fascination, even the terrible ones, even the Lost Cause nightmares like Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind.

Just show me a Civil War battle where ragged lines of men march directly into cannon fire, or a vista of the decaying bodies of fallen soldiers in imitation of a Matthew Brady photograph, and I sigh and say, “I’m home.”

So I celebrate our brave new world of much-needed revisionist film histories of the Civil War era and reexaminations of slavery in the antebellum South. I think we should read all the books and see all the films.

In only the past few years we’ve had Lincoln, Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, and The Free State of Jones. And opening in October is the new Birth of a Nation — Nate Parker’s much anticipated 2016 tribute to Nat Turner’s slave revolt that radically repurposes D. W. Griffith’s 1916 film title.

Not bad!

So go ahead and dedicate 139 minutes of your life to The Free State of Jones. There are absolutely redeeming elements.

Ross’s myth-debunking is propelled by an ideal true story: Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer serving in the Confederate Army, decided he wanted no part of any of it — the war, the Confederacy, or the planter economy.

So he became the Union-supporting leader of a community of escaped slaves and deserters holed up in the swamps of Jones County, Mississippi. From that base they skirmished regularly with the Confederate Army, stole the food that the rebels confiscated from starving locals and redistributed it back to them, and ultimately declared their territory the Free State of Jones.

But the war was easy compared to the peace, and the film trudges relentlessly through the hell of Emancipation and Reconstruction that resulted in the brutal dismantling of Knight’s racially integrated community.

Finally nothing is left but Newton and Rachel, an ex-slave who became his common-law wife. They hung tough on their farm with their mixed-race children to a ripe old age, shunned by the unregenerate South.

The end of the film would’ve been better if Ross had emphasized that they survived because they were armed to the teeth. Knight and his family never ceased their vigilance. Knight was sitting on his front porch with a shotgun well into his eighties. That would be the perfect final image of the film for me — but then, Gary Ross isn’t making films for me.

If he were, there’d be a harsher, wilder quality to the film altogether, and Ross wouldn’t have given in to the temptation to portray Newton Knight as a sad martyr fighting a lonely battle to save what amounts to his extended family.

The real Knight and his community members worked together against great odds to build a new state-with-a-capital-S. And their state had some real legitimacy: the Reconstruction government, for example, commissioned Knight to head up an all-black regiment that rescued black children from forced “apprenticeships” under white masters who’d been allowed to reclaim their plantations after the war.

But Ross revises this history. In the film, Newton joins his friend, an ex-slave, to save the man’s stolen child out of personal empathy. That’s one of the many mistakes the director makes.

Another is that he keeps jumping the narrative ahead to catch up with Knight’s grandson in the 1940s. It’s interesting that the grandson, judged one-quarter black and therefore in violation of anti-miscegenation laws for marrying a white woman, had to stand trial in Mississippi. But with all that’s going on in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras in an already overburdened movie, it’s maddening to have to keep visiting the twentieth century.

The Beautiful Struggle

Still, Ross should get credit for some things he does include, such as the bitter impact of class on who actually fought the Civil War, which was commonly referred to down South as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” For example, there’s a sequence dedicated to Knight’s anger over the enactment of the Twenty Slaves Law, which exempted owners of twenty or more slaves from military service.

Matthew McConaughey is pretty well cast as Knight. At his gauntest he can somewhat approximate the seared look of nineteenth-century laboring men. He can’t fully capture it, of course: Ross ends the film on a close-up of an old photograph of the actual, formidable Newton Knight, and the fiery-coal eyes that are so typical a feature of that era remind us of Charles Portis’s lament in Dog of the South: “We’re weaker than our fathers, Dupree. We don’t even look like them.”

Gary Ross can’t leave well enough alone, ever, and insists on turning McConaughey’s Newton Knight into Mississippi Jesus, forever striking saintly poses, gathering the multitudes around him to deliver sermons, and doing good works among his flock.

There’s a cringeworthy scene where he teaches Rachel to read the words on a barrel of a Remington rifle. Then, in an act of epic mansplaining, he teaches her to shoot it.

It’s ghastly if you’ve read about the actual Rachel Knight or seen the photograph that shows her to have been a remarkably tough and independent woman you’d be foolish to mess with. She’s the one who used her knowledge of herbology to serve as a community doctor, and who knew the swamp like the back of her hand, and who kept Knight’s fledgling community going by stealing food from the plantation that enslaved her, after all.

Yet Ross directs Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as Rachel, to be the prettiest, daintiest, shiest woman who ever dropped her eyes, curtsied, and murmured, “Yes, sir.” For old-fashioned fantasy femininity, she’s matched only by Keri Russell, always marvelously fetching without makeup, who plays Knight’s downtrodden first wife.

Ross’s tendency to prettify everything mars the whole film. He even finds the prettiest swamp, obscuring the harsh living conditions Knight’s guerilla fighters endured — even making you forget that they were guerilla fighters at all.

They hid out for years in a place so dismal with tangled trees and algae and venomous snakes and fever-bearing mosquitos and black water likely to suck you right under that only slaves, fugitives from the law, and the desperately poor knew how to navigate it, because you’d have to be running from something worse than death to even think about going in there.

So the film’s a regrettable failure. But occasional ideological thrills break through Ross’s slick Hollywood aesthetics and story of personal heroism, continuing the vital work of getting the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction right.

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