Summertime at the multiplex is a smorgasbord of comic book retreads; a whirlwind of sequels, prequels and reboots; the kind of brainless action flicks that allow you to turn your brain off for a couple hours. Sure, escapism is fun and fun is why a lot of people go to the theaters, thus creating the demand for the never ending line of sequels, prequels and reboots. Don’t get me wrong, I love brainless entertainment as much as the next person. However, even in the summer, my brain still craves some thoughtful stimulation now and then. Last year, one of my favorite movies of 2015, The Stanford Prison Experiment, was released in the summer. I don’t know yet if Free State of Jones will be one of my favorite movies of 2016, but it’s a great antidote to all of the CGI-heavy films dominating the box office.
Like The Stanford Prison Experiment, Free State of Jones is based on a true story. Fact is often not only stranger than fiction, but, at least to me, it’s often more fascinating. The film opens in 1863, when Mississippi farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is serving as a medic for the Confederate Army. Opposed to slavery, Knight would rather help the wounded than fight the Union. After his nephew dies in battle, Newton returns home to Jones County to safeguard his family but is soon branded an outlaw deserter. Forced to flee, he finds refuge with a group of runaway slaves hiding out in the swamps. Forging an alliance with the slaves and other farmers, Knight leads a rebellion that would forever change history. Though Newton’s story changed history, his story was almost forgotten history.
Jim Kelly, a consultant on the film, is a Mississippi historian who happens to be a descendant of Newton’s. After he kept hearing the same negative stories, he wanted to do some digging into his family’s past around a decade ago. Kelly found that the true story of Newton Knight had been drastically altered to adhere to the political climate of its day. “Stories that didn’t conform to the version of the Civil War preferred by those in power were hidden. Naturally, those taboo stories would include anything about Southerners being divided about slavery and secession. The effort to highlight only positive stories about slavery and the Confederacy was particularly urgent for those who had held high ranks in the secessionist forces and feared they might be executed for treason if the North didn’t see things their way. After a generation or two of “selective memory,” stories like that can begin to sound like the truth.” Kelly wasn’t the only descendant of Newton’s to make the news.
In the film, there are some flash forward scenes of Davis Knight, who was white, on trial for interracial marriage for marrying a white woman. Time Magazine covered this trial in 1948 and this is an excerpt of what was written: “Knight said they were wrong. But a relative, irked by an old family feud, had dug up Davis Knight’s genealogy. His great-grandfather had been Cap’n Newt Knight, who deserted the Confederate Army and set up “The Free State of Jones” in Jones County. Cap’n Newt had had children by Rachel, a Negro slave girl. Rachel was Davis Knight’s great-grandmother. Through succeeding generations, the Knights had married white men or women. Davis Knight’s own parents had not known of the Negro strain in their ancestry. The story the relative dug up would affect a number of other families in the neighborhood, all sprung from the loins of Cap’n Newt and Rachel. Last week a court in Ellisville convicted Cap’n Newt’s great-grandson of miscegenation, sentenced him to five years in jail.” [His conviction was later overturned.]
The film has been praised by civil rights leaders. NAACP President, Cornell Brooks, calls The Free State of Jones is “a powerful and poignant film about war, race, freedom and love – set in the past and the present.” Sherrilyn Iffil, President of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, exclaims, “this film is one for the moment. A forgotten history and reminder of the common cause between blacks and working class whites.” In case you haven’t heard, we’re electing a new president this year. Every day, we hear stories about the divisiveness between our political parties and our members of Congress. American politics seems to be focused on our few differences rather than our many similarities. This fact isn’t lost on most of us, including UN Ambassador, Andrew Young. “It is critical that we view this film and honor the lessons learned: that we achieve more if we learn to work together amicably.” In Free State of Jones, Southern whites and runaway slaves worked together for a cause. This might be a stretch – and overly idealistic – but maybe our opposing political factions can work together. Free State of Jones is in theaters now.