Free State of Jones

History and adapation

Whenever a new movie comes out that addresses the period of slavery in the United States, viewers must confront that sordid history anew. In 2013, we saw 12 Years a Slave, and a month ago, we saw a remake of the miniseries Roots. Now comes Free State of Jones, another of the many films that are “based on a true story.” (See my column “Not Based on a True Story,” Jan. 30, 2015.)

We easily decry the evil of “those people,” whose racism is so blatant and so violent. But this doesn’t necessarily challenge our more subtle or hidden racism today.

In this new film, like many others, we get a mix of history and adaptation for dramatic purposes. The story of Newton Knight is certainly compelling. A native of Mississippi, he deserted the Confederate army, along with others from Jones County, and led a guerrilla war against the Confederates with an army of up to five hundred people that included runaway slaves.

Director and cowriter Gary Ross, who also made Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games, tells the story with an eye on the motivations for Knight’s actions. He’s fortunate to have an actor as excellent as Matthew McConaughey to fill that role. His look and speech fit perfectly.

A medical orderly in the Confederate army, Knight leaves to bury a kinsman, a boy from his home county who was conscripted into the army by force, then killed on the battlefield. Back in Jones County, he learns that local Confederate soldiers are taking people’s food as a tax, leaving them without enough to survive the winter.

When he helps a family stand up to some soldiers, driving them away with guns, he becomes a fugitive and is hunted as a deserter. He hides in a nearby swamp with several runaway slaves.

The Newton Knight of the movie is a natural leader who gives speeches that draw on Scripture and class struggle. One motivation for him and others to desert the army is the “Twenty Negro Law,” which excuses one white man from the war for every 20 black slaves he owns. Knight says, “This isn’t our war.”

Ross keeps us informed of the time frame for different parts of the story by showing the dates. He also moves forward at different points to 1948 to show Knight’s great-grandson Davis Knight on trial for miscegenation, illegal according to Mississippi law. This is confusing at first but becomes pertinent as we learn more of Newton Knight’s story.

While it is a fascinating film, Free State of Jones raises several questions. One is how we view films like this that portray the evils of racism. Knight comes across early as a kind of white savior, though black slaves are given important dialogue and screen time. Knight also is a bit too good. A film (even at two-and-a-quarter hours) can’t cover the complexity of such an individual. But the real Knight had his share of flaws.

While the Knight of the movie has a son by Rachel, a slave, played beautifully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the real Knight had three families with three different women and fathered dozens of mixed-race children. He was a man of strong principles, quick to have a knife at the throat of anyone who rubbed him the wrong way, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

A related question regards our response to such films. We easily decry the evil of “those people,” whose racism is so blatant and so violent. But this doesn’t necessarily challenge our more subtle or hidden racism today. This is not a criticism of the film, which is telling a story from the past. But it is a caution about how we view it.

Then there’s the depiction of religion in the film. Knight was a Primitive Baptist who often quoted Scripture. And references to Scripture and to God occur in the film. But you won’t find references to Jesus’ teachings about nonviolence. As McConaughey said in an interview with the Daily Beast, Knight “was not a ‘turn the other cheek’ New Testament guy.” Redemptive violence is clearly presented here, though ultimately it didn’t work. Laws changed, and people changed, though the film only implies that; we don’t see it.

Free State of Jones is rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images.


All reviews express the opinions of the reviewer, not necessarily the views of Third Way.