Yesterday, I watched “Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey. The movie follows the story of Newton Knight, who led a pro-Union rebellion deep in Mississippi during the American Civil War. I liked the movie, and there are a few things that stood out to me about it.
First, the film challenges the idea that all white Southerners during the Civil War were racists bent on preserving the institution of slavery. Newton was a complicated man who bucked convention, married a black woman, and also allowed an ex-wife to live on his property. His rebellion in Jones County seems to have been as much a socioeconomic one as well as abolitionist — he resented the poor fighting a rich man’s war.
Second, the film portrays the transmutation of racism in the south throughout generations very well. There are scenes cut into the Civil War narrative of a 20th-century trial of Knight’s descendant that put the question of his racial composition to the court. The institution of “apprenticeship” during Reconstruction and of course segregation itself illustrate how the South continued to grapple with virulent racism even after the overthrow of slavery.
An interesting article to read as a supplement to the movie is the Smithsonian’s “The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones.'” It examines attitudes toward the film in the complicated world of the South today. It also clued me into something that I wish the film did portray. Newt Knight was staunchly pro-Union, but strangely ended up voluntarily enlisting to fight in the Confederate Army. I wish the film would have explored Newt’s pre-war life to explain this contradiction, but already being over two hours long, it may have risked excess.