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Free State of Jones

June 24, 2016
Free State of Jones

I’m getting a bit tired of slavery movies. Yes, like the Holocaust movies I’m even more full up on, it’s an important story to remember. On the other hand, I promise you that there are many, many more Black stories out there that are just as important, but all we ever get are slavery and civil rights narratives.

Both of which show up in Free State of Jones, an immensely self-serious anti-slavery and pro-civil-rights movie that offers the novel twist: “gee, how much did the slavery, the civil war, and its echoes down through the years suck for White folks, right?”

Which is not to say that there’s nothing at all valuable here. The last third of this seemingly interminable trudge focuses on the Reconstruction-era South probably more than any movie I’ve seen since Birth of a Nation, which admittedly staked out a more positive position on things like the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. And there are some worthwhile historical notes sprinkled throughout. But, like a southern-fried steak, it’s an overdone cheap cut drowned in thick white sludge.

The so-called “free state” of Jones County, Mississippi is really more of a local legend, although it was the center of a distinctly Unionist — or at least somewhat less urgently separationist — region on the southeast border of the state. That largely came out of being mostly dirt-poor yeoman farmers rather than large plantation owners. Very few of them owned slaves, and yet they were conscripted to fight and die on behalf of those who did. The Confederacy’s “Twenty Negro Law”, exempting one man of fighting age from duty for each twenty slaves a family owned, added insult to that injury. And then the Confederate “tax” collectors raided as much cloth, grain, and livestock to feed their supply lines as Sherman’s invading armies did.

So it’s little wonder that Jones and the surrounding counties became a haven for Confederate deserters. The raiding band led by Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) maintained a bubble of Unionist — even anti-slavery — sympathies against the rear-guard of the Confederate armies, even while receiving little help from the official Union armies laying waste to Georgia. But the stories that they declared some sort of tax-free utopia, independent from both sides are a bit closer to legends. To hear writer/director Gary Ross tell it, Libertarian saint Friedrich Hayek got all his best ideas from Knight.

It’s true that abolitionist sentiments didn’t always imply a rejection of White supremacy, but it does seem that the real Newt Knight was full-throatedly in favor of equality. After the war he was indeed married to former slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), was assigned to an otherwise all-Black unit of the Mississippi state infantry, and was buried in a Black cemetery, segregation laws be damned.

In Ross’ telling, though, it comes out in a common “it’s class, not race” sentiment, that prefers to ignore rather than overturn White supremacy. He’s the Elvis of anti-Confederate revolts, learning how to hide out in the swamps from runaway slaves like Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), and then teaching them to fight back like a proper white savior. He counsels his fellow deserters and poor farmers that they were all just like the slaves — he uses stronger language I know better than to think can be covered by the veil of historical context — in the eyes of the wealthy Southerners, which doesn’t quite capture the reality of their different situations.

And then there are the recurrent flash-forwards to the late 1940s, when Knight’s great-grandson Davis (Brian Lee Franklin) was put on trial for miscegenation. Because the echoing horror of slavery and segregation was evidently that a man who had otherwise passed as white might be taken as otherwise. Again: white folk are occasionally subject to the treatment usually reserved for brown folk, and that’s taken as the awful part.

As I said, there’s a lot of value in talking more about the Reconstruction-era South, but it’s got to focus a lot more on those who truly bore the brunt of its injustices. Handing over all the drama to a scene-chewing white guy doesn’t help as much as Free State of Jones thinks it does.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace test: fail.

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