In another summer film season dominated by super heroes and patriots battling alien invaders, filmmaker Gary Ross, who directed Pleasantville (1998), Seabiscuit (2003), and The Hunger Games (2012), offers an unconventional American hero with Matthew McConaughey as Newt Knight in The Free State of Jones. The complex American history lesson presented in Ross’s film, however, has failed to resonate with film audiences, who seem to prefer less complicated action heroes.
The Free State of Jones tells the story of Knight who led a band of deserters from Jones County, Mississippi, who abandoned the Confederate army and refused to take up arms against the Union. The Southern mythology of The Lost Cause has promoted a regional amnesia regarding division among white Southerners regarding secession. The vast majority of Southern whites did not own slaves, and many questioned the wisdom of going to war on behalf of slavery and the planter class; although racial prejudice made many of these non-slave owning whites apprehensive about the status of free blacks if slavery were to be abolished.
The vast majority of Southern whites did not own slaves, and many questioned the wisdom of going to war on behalf of slavery and the planter class.
Newt Knight was a yeoman farmer who owned no slaves, but his father Jackie Knight was a cotton planter who relied upon slave labor. After being drafted into the Confederate army, Newt and other yeoman farmers deserted following the Confederacy’s passage of the Twenty-Negro Law that allowed military officers owning over twenty slaves the right to go home and supervise their slave labor and cotton cultivation.
The existence of Knight’s company of deserters in Jones County led the Confederacy to mount military expeditions against the deserters; resulting in battles between Confederate troops and Newt’s forces as well as the brutal execution of alleged deserters including Newt’s young cousin, Ben. Newt and most of his followers, however, were able to escape capture due to their knowledge of the woods and swamps as well as support by enslaved people and independent women who were subject to repression by Confederate soldiers.
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This struggle continued into the Reconstruction era as the efforts by former Confederates to gain control of the government was resisted by Newt’s company of pro-Union men. Ross’s film deserves credit for challenging the mythology of Reconstruction as the “rape” of the South by freed blacks, Northern carpetbaggers, and Southern scalawags as depicted in films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). Instead, Reconstruction was a noble experiment to introduce racial equality into the South that was prematurely ended by Klan violence.
With the triumph of the white redeemers, Newt withdrew from public life and retreated into the formation of an inter-racial community that defied Mississippi’s miscegenation laws and emerging Jim Crow society. Although still married to his wife Serena, Newt fathered several children with Rachel, a former enslaved woman. Mat and Molly Knight, whose parents were Newt and Serena, married children from Rachel’s previous relationships that may have included white men who forced themselves upon the enslaved woman. We have no record as to what Serena Knight thought of the relationship between Newt and Rachel, but she remained part of the family, living with Molly and her husband Jeffrey.
In fact, one of the problems with The Free State of Jones, according to historian Virginia Bynum upon whose book the film is based, remains that Newt Knight and his family left little in the way of written records. Thus, Ross takes some liberties with history be making Newt into an abolitionist who championed racial equality. We do not know if this is the really the case for there were many whites in both the North and South who opposed slavery for its negative economic impact upon white labor, but who did not necessarily advocate racial equality. Newt’s role in flaunting Southern mores regarding inter-racial relationships suggests that he was more sympathetic to black rights, but the concrete evidence is lacking.
The Free State of Jones is yet another example of Hollywood focusing upon a white hero in a story of black liberation and resistance to slavery. Nevertheless, the story of Newt Knight, even if his heroism is somewhat exaggerated, provides a useful corrective to the Hollywood Southern mythology of the Civil War and Reconstruction regarding the noble Lost Cause and imposition of back rule in Reconstruction. Newt Knight demonstrates that there were white Southerners opposed to slavery and secession who maintained their allegiance to the Union while challenging racial boundaries. These are values that match up well with any super hero, and perhaps film goers should give The Free State of Jones another look.
Albuquerque resident and film historian