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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.