Review: The Free State of Jones

 

I saw the movie, “The Free State of Jones” today and came away with mixed feelings. I did not see the film untainted because I’d read  reviews and knew their takes before I saw it for myself. One take lambasted the film as yet another where the white savior saved the otherwise helpless black folk from their despair. I didn’t feel that way because the black folk never really got saved anyway and mostly reverted back to a similar life than when in slavery, with a different name. Those that survived anyway.

jones blacks

Another take was that it was the true story of a Union stronghold in rural Mississippi that never gets told. While the Free people of Jones County had a common enemy with the Union soldiers. They were hardly allies and got little support because the geographic area had no strategic significance.

I can see that those that don’t know their history might rally behind the hope offered by the Republican Party vs. The oppression offered by the Democrats. They apparently don’t know that today’s Republican Party more closely resembles yesterday’s Democrats, as they have since the passage of Civil Rights legislation and Voting Rights legislation of the 1960’s. As entertainment, the movie works. As art it works, assuming one of the purposes of art is to create discussion. Where the film absolutely doesn’t work is as an accurate portrayal of history.

jones black man

 

“Free State of Jones” makes Newton Knight out to be a hero. To do so required they omit the history that would taint his legacy. They don’t mention that after his second (and black) wife Rachel died, he fathered children with his daughter George Anne. He led a community of not only interracial mingling but more familial mingling where the children of Newton and his first wife Serena married the children of he and his black wife Rachel. These are not the stories that tend to be seen as heroic, so they were omitted.

jones and rachel

The movie is a story, heavily disputed by many as conflicting books have been written and few facts are known. Even the subtitles giving the history of Jones County and the American Civil War are at best misleading, because of what they do not say. They tell us about reconstruction and blacks getting the right to vote. They fail to mention the Compromise of 1877 which led to the Federal troops that enforced reconstruction leaving, basically ending it as Jim Crow became the new law of the land.

For the purpose of the story, Newton deserted the Confederate Army to bring his dead nephew home to be buried. Whatever his reasons for desertion, they were not that. The story suggests Newton joined the Reb’s because of conscription which forced white men to join the Confederate Army when in fact he joined of his own free will. His causes of equality and freedom for all men are suspect when compared to some of the reports of his life.

jones nephew

If your motive is a couple hours of entertainment, and you don’t mind a bit of gratuitous violence, by all means go. If you’re looking for an honest portrayal of history, you’d be in the wrong place.

Author: enigmainblackcom

William Spivey is a regular contributor to the Inner-City News where he writes about politics and popular culture. He also blogs as “Enigma in Black” where he explores poetry, religion, politics and all manner of things socially relevant. He is also a contributing Blogger at Together We Stand He is the founder of the Facebook pages Average Citizen Forum, Enigma in Black, and “Strong Beginnings,” the title of his soon to be released Political Fiction/Romance novel. William was the winner of a University-wide Essay Contest while at Fisk University titled, “The Value of a Liberal Arts Education. He holds a B.A. in Economics from Fisk and resides in Orlando, FL. His goal is to make his voice heard and make a difference.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Free State of Jones”

  1. Hi, I’ve got to comment about Newt Knight’s complicated marital life here because what you are printing is in fact gossip that was circulated about him by white supremacists who hated his guts and it got accepted as the truth by “Lost Cause” (i.e. Confederate sympathizers) historians. This was all corrected in the recent biographies about Knight where authors carried out extensive research and consulted family oral histories.

    Bynum’s “Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War” and Jenkins & Stauffer’s “State of Jones” are really the definitive works on the story.

    Newton Knight married a childhood friend Serena. They had 9 children. The Confederates destroyed the Knight’s farm and tortured Newt when he first deserted, put him in chains and dragged him back to the front. Serena left to stay with family in Georgia as her family had no place to live and no means of support. Newt deserted again and fled with Jasper Collins to the swamps along the Leaf River. There they met maroons who were being supplied with food and information by Rachel an enslaved woman who belonged to Newt Knight’s grandfather. The Knight family was divided: half were slaveholders and pro-Confederacy but Newt’s father and his brothers were opposed to slavery for religious reasons and never owned any slaves.

    Rachel threw in her lot with Newt and the maroons and other Confederate deserters who came to swell their ranks – which may have reached as many as 600 people. Rachel and the wives of poor white farmer/soldiers acted as spies and suppliers for the Knight Company and they fought as active combatants. Rachel had acted as an agent for the Underground Railroad but never fled herself probably because she already had 8 children and couldn’t have taken them with her. Rachel had had her first child GeorgeAnne when she was only 13, raped probably by her original “owner” or an overseer. She was sold along with her small children to Newt’s grandfather while she was still in her teens and taken from Georgia to Mississippi. She had several more children probably fathered by Newt’s uncle Jesse, also obviously the product of rape.

    Newt and Rachel became a couple at some point after the Civil War. Her older children had dispersed and she and Newt lived with her younger children, his children with Serena (who had returned to Mississippi) lived with their mother on an adjacent property. Newt and Rachel would have 5 children together. Newt’s son Tom stated that his parents divorced though no record has been found. Rachel and her daughter Molly converted to Mormonism when a Mormon missionary came through the county. Newt told someone who interviewed him in old age that he too was a Mormon. Two of Newt and Serena’s children married two of the children Rachel had prior to meeting Newt, probably fathered by his uncle, making the newlyweds 2nd cousins – not scandalous in isolated communities in those days.

    Rachel died when she was only 49. Newt and Rachel were the same age. A couple of years after Rachel’s death, Newt and Rachel’s eldest daughter (who was already 36 when her mother died and had not lived with her for many years and probably returned to look after Rachel during her final illness) GeorgeAnne became a couple and would have two daughters together. GeorgeAnne’s father was unknown but not related to the Knights. As GeorgeAnne had no children for a period of over 15 years, she was obviously celibate for a long time. They didn’t have birth control in those days and nobody in the story seems to have had any fertility issues! Her oldest child Anna (father was never identified) who would go on to become a leading educator in Mississippi said in her memoirs that her own biological father was a slaveowner. She wrote about Newt and said that he had been opposed to slavery and an abolitionist.

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    1. Hello Kerry, I appreciate your reply and there are a few things you mention of which I was unaware. I did not know that Georgeanne was not his natural daughter which makes him only a Woody Allen kind of pervert as opposed to a John and McKenzie Phillips kind of way.
      There are multiple versions of the Newton Knight tale and I don’t think any can be deemed as authoritative. In your reply you refer to GeorgeAnne having no children for 15 years which meant she was “obviously celibate” and not having fertility issues because nobody else in the story did, that would not be considered a fact anywhere. Your reply has a few too many “probably’s” and “obviously’s” for me to consider this as more than another version.
      One thing for certain is that the movie version eliminated many of the few known facts about the man to tell their story. It is true that Newton and his father held no slaves, it’s also true his grandfather and his uncles were among the largest slaveholders in the area.
      Perhaps Newton was an abolitionist and opposed to slavery, what you’ve presented is as much hearsay as any differing account. He may well have been a good, even a great man? But this film has taken too many liberties for me to simply take their word.

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