by Alec Hudson
When it comes to Hollywood and the Civil War, sentimentality and white saviour mentality are pervasive. Whether it is the 1989 film “Glory” or the melodramatic “Gods and Generals,” there’s always the classic trope of great men in history who dictate its conditions. “The Free State of Jones” is no exception, depicting the anti-Confederate insurgency in Jones County, Mississippi led by a poor white Confederate deserter Newton Knight, played by Matthew McConaughey.
The film attempts to show racial and economic solidarity between poor whites and runaway slaves attempting to usurp the power of the slave-owning aristocracy. The insurgency begins with Knight protecting neighbors against Confederate Home Guard soldiers who attempt to take a large portion of their crops, an act that leads to him living with runaway slaves in the swamps of Jones County where Confederate troops have a harder time catching them. As more whites desert the Confederate Army in Jones County the band of runaways and deserters grows large enough to carry out full-scale guerrilla raids against Confederate troops, eventually leading to the insurgency’s control of most of Jones County and neighboring counties with limited aid from the Union Army.
The first two acts, concerning the rise of the insurgency, showcase film’s the weakness and clichéd nature. While the film does have wonderful performances by black actors, particularly the performances of Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the focus on Knight and his relationships combined with clichéd morals of tolerance makes the film little different in its white savior mentality. McConaughey, though a talented actor, gives a by-the-book performance that makes Knight a romanticized hero rather than a complex man from rural Mississippi whose attitude on race evolved. Added to this is the oddly framed story shift with Knight’s biracial son on trial in the 1950s for marrying a white woman in Mississippi, a background story that does not serve much of a purpose to the overall story’s narrative.
However, the film truly does shine in its third act depiction of Reconstruction. Very few films have depicted the essential re-enslavement of black Americans following the war, as well as the attempts at political and educational empowerment through defending voting rights, establishing free schools, and organizing Union Leagues to promote political empowerment and self-determination. The greatest depictions were in particular showing the attempts at registering former slaves to vote, the rigged nature of local elections, and the new “apprenticeship” system of sharecropping where free black free black people essential became property once again for plantation owners. Underlying the conditions depicted in the film is also the broken promise of economic compensation for former slaves, embodied in General Sherman’s Special Field Orders Number 15 which gave rise to the notion of freed slaves receiving forty acres and a mule. The lack of economic aid and the permission of plantation owners by the Federal government to reclaim property seized by Union forces do vividly show a microcosm of how the pre-war slave-owning aristocracy was allowed to maintain both its economic and political control on the South as well as politically and economically disenfranchise black people.
“The Free State of Jones” is a part of the Hollywood canon of romanticized American Civil War films focusing on the feats of male, white heroes against the evils of slavery. At the same time it contains one of the greatest depictions of the Reconstruction Era ever put to screen and does leave one hopeful for more films that use such brutal honesty to portray that era. With the reality of police violence against communities of color, we need more popular culture that analyzes the causes of Jim Crow and segregation. This film is, as Eileen Jones of Jacobin Magazine puts it “continuing the vital work of getting the history of the Civil War and Reconstruction right.”