Free State of Jones: a review

My wife and I were able to make a late night showing of Free State of Jones on Friday. I was excited to see a new Civil War movie. My wife was excited to see Matthew McConaughey. Both of us love good period dramas. 

Let me begin by saying that Free State of Jones is not an enjoyable movie experience. Free State of Jones is not a Michael Shaara/Jeff Shaara battlefield epic. Like Amistad, Cold Mountain, and Pharaoh’s Army, Free State of Jones asks us to examine and repent of our sins. It’s a gut punch of a story, and it’s protagonists don’t experience a final victory. Dehumanizing racism is alive in our country. 

The story of Newton Knight is captivating and full of controversy. I highly recommend that you read the “True Store of the ‘Free State of Jones'” in the Smithsonian Magazine prior to watching the movie.

Knight deserted the Confederate Army after the second battle of Corinth and formed an “army” of former slaves and former Confederates to fight against the Confederate authorities in the vicinity of Jones County, Mississippi. Knight would later aid the Reconstruction-era government by defending the rights of former slaves in an extremely hostile environment. Knight’s double-barreled shotgun was never far from his side, and he was certainly willing to engage in violence to achieve his ends.

Knight was similarly radical in his personal life. He separated from, but did not divorce, his first wife, with whom he had many children. He later had a long-time relationship with a former slave and had children with her. Knight’s white children and mixed-race children lived together on the same farm. As you can imagine, Knight’s family arrangement caused as much controversy as his political activities.

It seems to me that one’s view of Knight is contingent upon one’s interpretation of the Civil War. The story of Newton Knight threatens the myth of the lost cause. In the movie, Knight is the libertarian champion of the rights of men, fighting against the tyrannical Confederacy. The local Confederate authorities engaged in unjust taxation, theft, and murder. Knight promoted open rebellion and encouraged the use of firearms to defend one’s property from the government.

In contrast, the “lost causers” will point out that Knight was an adulterer, agitator, deserter, murderer, and traitor. They will argue that Knight did not have some over-arching moral vision, he was simply a law-breaker out for his own gain.

I’m sure that the debates over Newton Knight will continue to be partisan, tribal, and unpersuasive. The story hits too close to home for many of us to have a dispassionate and nuanced reaction to it. Our sense of identity is tied to the Civil War in a unique way. The past is very much alive.

As to the movie itself,  there is so much to say about Knight’s story that segments do seem rushed. The movie is ambitious and covers a ton of ground. The director uses actual Civil War photographs to connect the story to the grand narrative of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It’s almost like Ken Burns drops in for 20 seconds every now and then. I find the documentary-style asides helpful, but I’m sure some will find them distracting.

The Free State of Jones is absolutely worth the price of admission. You won’t enjoy it, but it will be good for you. I also encourage you to stay away from the second civil war that is being fought on the internet. The partisan historians are bravely staking out positions in the comment sections. It’s a bloody mess.

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