Saturday, June 25, 2016

Free State of Jones

I loved this movie about Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who rebelled against the Confederacy during the Civil War and Reconstruction. I'd never heard of him before, and found the drama moving and powerful. Yes, the film does play into the white savior trope, with Matthew McConaughey as the star instead of the black characters. But I felt that the black characters like Moses and Rachel were featured pretty prominently, and they weren't passively following Knight's lead. Besides, I'll get to see a black lead in the Nat Turner movie Birth of a Nation in October; for now, Free State of Jones tides me over. Wikipedia says that Newton Knight, as well as most people in his county, were Unionists against secession even before the war. The movie didn't make that history clear, instead portraying it as a slow conversion during the course of the war.

The movie starts in the middle of the Civil War, with Newton as a stretcher-bearer retrieving wounded Confederate soldiers from the battlefield. He and his friends complain about being drafted into the war and are upset about the new Twenty Negro Law, exempting wealthy men from military service if their family owns at least 20 slaves. The poor farmers complain about fighting the rich men's war for cotton; there's a wry humor in some scenes that I liked. Newton's young nephew suddenly arrives at camp, telling how his family's farm was raided (by Confederates) and he was drafted into the war. Newton comforts the terrified boy and tries to keep him safe during the next day's battle, but the kid dies. Newton decides to take the boy home to his mother to be buried, also deserting the army at that time to return to his wife and young son in Mississippi. We glimpse what Newton's nephew was talking about earlier: a Confederate supply officer frequently rides into poor farms to collect a "ten percent" tax of food and other property for the war. But his soldiers often take everything of value, intimidating the women who have no men at home to help them. Newton decides to help his neighbors, starting with a woman and her young daughters, whom he trains how to shoot rifles to defend their farm. Newton does this knowing that the officer will try to arrest him for deserting the army, and Newton's wife Serena complains that this is a hanging offense. He should think of his family first, not draw the attention of the authorities.

Newton escapes arrest due to a local woman named Sally who lends her slaves to aid Newton. He befriends a house slave named Rachel, who later leads him into a hiding place in the swamp, where a small group of runaway slaves are already living. I did find it hard to believe at first that the slaves would trust Newton to know this hideout so soon; surely they should have feared that he would go try to make a deal with the Confederates by selling out the slaves' location? However, if it's historically true that Newton was always Unionist, if not actually abolitionist, it makes more sense for them to trust him. Newton then befriends Moses and offers to remove a spiked collar from his neck. Everyone realizes that the loud noise of removing the collar will attract Confederates to their camp in the swamp, so Newton arranges to get rifles and teach the slaves how to shoot, just like he already tutored the white girls before. (I didn't hear an explanation about just where Newton got these rifles from. Was it Sally again?)

So they kill the slavecatchers and continue to live safely in the swamp. As the Civil War rages on, other Confederate soldiers desert, and Newton welcomes them into the group, creating quite a colony in the swamp, and giving pretend military ranks to the members. They seem raucously happy but there is still some racial tension between the white camp and the black camp living close by. Newton remains loyal to Moses and the others, and he begins a romance with Rachel, even teaching her to read. (Serena and their son left the farm, after Newton became wanted as a deserter.) As time passes, Knight's company of rebels grows increasingly bold and openly battles the Confederate troops sent to arrest them. Newton preaches a semi-religious philosophy about how the poor class need to take what's theirs, because the "ten percent" tax is never collected from the wealthy plantations. The populist message seems to satisfy the whites enough to not keep complaining about the black members. Moses also proclaims himself a free man, and is supported by Newton while declaring the "Free State of Jones."

The movie also skips ahead 85 years to a Knight descendant who is on trial for marrying a white woman when he is partly black (the one-drop rule), because Newton married Rachel and had children with her. I found these 1940s era court scenes jarring the first couple of times, wondering why they were spoiling the plot. I think the movie is trying to portray a parallel and a hereditary strain of defiance in Knights when it comes to love. Knight's Company tries to join the Union by contacting General Sherman, but they don't receive the artillery supplies that they request. Some of Knight's white comrades decide to leave and return to their farms, so Knight retreats to the swamps with a smaller band of followers. After the war ends, we watch scenes of Reconstruction, as Knight and his black friends feel disappointed by broken promises and move to new farms. Moses tries to register fellow blacks to vote in the upcoming election, only to be lynched. Newton is devastated by this, and later he helps escort the blacks into town to vote on election day. The Ku Klux Klan retaliates, and Rachel tries to convince Newton to move North so their son can live free. (I thought maybe she was arguing that they could pass off the kid as white, born from Serena, who has returned after becoming destitute. It seems unclear, because the movie tried to suggest there was a mystery about who the kid's mother was.) Subtitles explain what happened, though they said Newton was unable to legally marry Rachel. But I thought mixed marriages were briefly legal during Reconstruction. I would have thought Newton would have tried to do that, even if the marriage was later declared invalid. Or maybe it's because Newton didn't divorce Serena first? I don't know.

Anyway, I'm sure the film took dramatic license with the story, as Hollywood films tend to do. For instance, I wonder whether the scene where Newton killed an officer in a church was some over-the-top fantasy. Afterward, I read in a review that the official movie site is annotated with historical references for the scenes in the movie, but I can't view the site, maybe because I disabled Flash on my computer. Maybe I'll try to see the film Tap Roots, which apparently is an earlier fictionalized version of the story.

Edited to add: I found a Smithsonian article about Newton Knight and the making of the movie. Very interesting. Also, Victoria Bynum, author of the book the movie is based on, has a blog where she answers some questions about the movie's historical accuracy. She even reviewed Tap Roots. There's a Daily Kos article as well about other pockets of Southern Unionist rebellion, and it cheers me up to think there was some resistance in Texas too. (Finally, Daily Kos is starting to be a useful, informative website again after the hysteria of the primary.) Looks like I have plenty to read.

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