Movie review: Free State of Jones (2016)

Free State of Jones follows Newton Jones, a nurse in the Confederate Army, who leaves the army, disillusioned by the purpose of the Confederacy and the favoritism shown to the wealthy slave owners. The movie covers the war years 1862 until 1865, Reconstruction, and the rise of the KKK.

Newton Jones was a real person, who along with runaway slaves and deserters, fought the Confederate Army, sought help from Sherman (yes, really), and ended up establishing—albeit briefly—the Free State of Jones, an area of the south that seceded from the Confederacy (yes, really).

The movie is an eye-opener. It is based on true events, but I assume that facts and events were modified for effect. Nevertheless, Free State of Jones presents a history that I was unaware of—some people in the Confederacy rejected the status quo of slavery and stood with blacks to form a free society. Granted, the whites in the community were often part of it because they did not want to fight and die for wealthy slave owners; they were the poor farmers who did not own slaves. They fought against the Confederate Army’s confiscation of their property for the war effort. Not their war. Not their effort.

After the war, the true motivation of whites to be part of the society fighting the Confederacy in large part was revealed; most whites that rejected the Confederacy were portrayed as racist Confederate Democrats. While the war was raging, these whites had a common enemy with runaway slaves: the Confederacy that was stealing their food and belongs. Southerners were literally fighting the army to keep what they needed to survive. (I could easily see the roots of modern anti-government, armed Americans who rebel against what they see as the tyranny of the government.)

With the end of the war, this fraternity between blacks and whites who opposed the Confederacy mostly fell apart. Their interests were no longer aligned. Black rights only mattered (to most whites) when blacks were aligned with what whites were fighting for.

Free State of Jones doesn’t end with the end of the war. It continues a bit, showing a part of history that we normally are not exposed to. After the war, every former slave, history tells us, was given 40 acres and a mule.

Not so fast. With the assassination of Lincoln, Vice President Andrew Johnson, a deep racist, ascended to the presidency. What I did not know was that Johnson rescinded the order to provide former slaves with the basics for them to start a new life.

During the immediate post-war time in Mississippi, slavery continued under the law under another name: apprenticeship. Upon hearing of the law in court, Newton ends up buying a friend’s son from an “apprenticeship”.

Elections were rigged and blacks intimidated and killed. Newton’s friend Moses, whose son he bought from an apprenticeship, traveled the county, patiently meeting with black men and gathering the necessary information to register them. He was later found mutilated and hanging from a tree.

On election day, Newton gathers with a couple dozen of his black and white brethren to vote Republican, only to be intimidated. In the end, they are all able to cast their votes, but the official election results for the county was 419 Democratic votes to 2 Republican votes. Clearly, there was voter fraud.

The federal government did eventually send federal troops to the south during Military Reconstruction. In what was poor judgment, the federal government removed the troops at the same time that the KKK was surging. Thousands of blacks in Mississippi subsequently died.

Intertwined with this story of Newton Knight and racism in 19th century Mississippi, is a story about racism in 1940s Mississippi. The movie shows Davis Knight, the great-great-grandson of Newton, on trial for breaking Mississippi segregation laws by marrying a white woman. Davis looks white, but he is accused of being 1/8 African American. He is the offspring of Newton Knight and his common law black wife Rachel rather than an offspring of Newton Knight and his white first wife Serena.

The Mississippi Supreme Court eventually overturned Davis’ conviction, perhaps to prevent the case from going to the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court ruling on the unconstitutionality of the Mississippi law. The two stories reveal the deep inherited racism that continued to exist in the 1940s (and by implication, exists today).

Free State of Jones is well made and the story engrossing. I am surprised that the movie wasn’t better received. Matthew McConaughey does a convincing job, immersed in the role of a southern man who led a revolt against the Confederacy. At over two hours, the movie did not feel long. In fact, I would have loved for the movie to go into more depth about the post-Civil War situation in Mississippi and Newton’s life and struggle during that time. Now to track down the books that the movie is based on.

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