Reconstruction is perhaps the least understood period in American history, a distinction that has been both perpetuated by and reflected in popular culture since the late nineteenth century. Films in particular have gone from presenting the era through the Dunning lens of rank white supremacy (The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, Tennessee Johnson) to skipping straight to white reunion (Abraham Lincoln, Ken Burns’s The Civil War) to addressing its social achievements and betrayals through either subtle foreshadowing (Lincoln, Glory) or highbrowed metaphor (The Hateful Eight). Director Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones, however, which depicts the origins and aftermath of Newton Knight’s bigender and biracial anti-Confederate insurgency in Jones County, Mississippi, might be the first to properly and historically situate Reconstruction in full relation to the war itself, serving as a vigorous repudiation of Lost Cause mythology.
Consulted by and employing source material from historians including Eric Foner, David Blight, and Victoria Bynum, Free State of Jones presents a wartime regional counternarrrative that becomes a postwar national standard narrative. In other words, the events depicted both are and are not historically representative. Led by farmer-turned-renegade Knight, ably portrayed by a suitably angular Matthew McConaughey, white members of the “Knight Company” are deserters and poor farmers who have rejected the Confederate “Twenty Negro Law” and regressive property confiscation; its black constituents are self-emancipated slaves and intrepid spies with even greater interest in overthrowing the callous Southern plantocracy. Through a series of competently shot skirmishes and ambushes, this militant underclass slowly drives Confederate forces from a large swath of southeast Mississippi. Persecuted by the Confederacy and ignored by the Union, Knight’s militia declares a “Free State of Jones” committed to principles of social and economic egalitarianism. His white wife and child having absconded, Knight falls for a mixed race slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and together they create a biracial community that still exists.
The final act, however, is a sweeping depiction of how gains achieved during the war changed amid postwar social and political complexity—loyalty oaths, sharecropping, Black Codes, apprenticeship laws, Union Leagues, ballot box fraud, arson, lynching, white paramilitaries, and the establishment of a hard, legal color line are all here. Nearly all of the Knight Company’s white members quickly bow out—a choice of racial solidarity over class solidarity that has characterized so much of American history. Meanwhile, empowered freedpeople and the small number of white comrades who remain use legal political channels to challenge former Confederates and planters (embodied here by the dastardly Lieutenant Barbour and Master Eakins) who are looking to reclaim power at all costs. We know how this story ends: wholesale white-on-black political violence, the “redemption” of the master race, and those defeated in war winning the peace.
Nevertheless, charges of “white savior” began with the release of the film’s teaser trailer. To be sure, this is a story—a true story—in which a white male character “leads” people of color and whites in a military capacity. He also has a romantic relationship with a woman of color. But that’s really where the tropes end. Not only does the film (unlike Lincoln) feature multi-dimensional black characters, the scenes of black political mobilization, particularly those led by the remarkable actor Mahershala Ali as the suggestively named Moses Washington, are some of the movie’s best. Knight, meanwhile, follows Washington and other freedpeople in a political capacity after the war. More importantly, Free State’s lack of a redemptive angle—any accurate assessment of Reconstruction must affirm the era’s progressive to regressive arc—precludes it from standard white savior fare. This is not simply a story of paternalistic white people teaching black people how to do things, nor is it a story in which black characters merely serve to enlighten the white protagonist. Rather, it’s a story of the mediation between black and white worlds, the violent struggle to unite those two worlds on the basis of shared (though by no means equal) oppression, and the failure of that project due to white supremacy and the political and economic power it conferred. Indeed, as any proper interpretation of Reconstruction should be, this is a story of rapid, even revolutionary change, things looking hopeful, then slowly getting worse.
Social critics in The Atlantic, the New York Times, and elsewhere have also lamented that the film does not focus on the brutality of slavery. They take particular umbrage at a line from the film in which Knight proclaims, “Somehow, some way, sometime, everybody is just somebody else’s nigger.” To the first point, there cannot be enough artfully and historically rendered depictions of slavery. Period. But, despite depictions of master-on-slave rape, whipping, and punishment collars, Free State is not a story about black subservience only, and what it is—a story about racial construction and the nexus of race and class—is important in its own right. To the second, that this word choice (which is period appropriate) has drawn impassioned reaction by twenty-first century audiences is understandable. But I would only ask moviegoers to consider Knight’s audience. He is speaking primarily to white Confederate defectors, explaining to them not that their experiences and conditions are identical to those of black people, but that a similar inferiority that they direct toward black people is directed toward them by the planter class which is directing the war. My first thought was John Lennon’s “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” Neither movie nor song are claiming equal oppression, but underscoring hierarchies of oppression within culturally specific contexts.
To that end, films emphasizing the Civil War’s class dynamics need not be pitted against those emphasizing its racial ones—indeed, the two cannot be disentangled. And in attempting to disentangle them, critics are obstructing the ability of the film to strike a colossal and highly public blow against the pernicious Lost Cause. Furthermore, while class is, primarily, the fulcrum on which Knight’s decisions turn, class is not the fulcrum on which the freedpeoples’ decisions pivot. Nor is it for the overwhelming majority of southern whites, including members of Knight’s biracial posse, which shrinks from overwhelmingly white down to a black majority with a mere handful of white men during Reconstruction. This gradation of privilege on screen left this reviewer with no doubt whatsoever that while poor whites—subject to conscription, property seizure, and arson—were certainly oppressed, black slaves and freedpeople—subject to manacles, rape, and unbridled political murder, and without the basic social advantage conferred by white skin—were oppressed far worse. Indeed, the film offers several instances of racial oppression within or in addition to class oppression: Knight’s camp is de facto racially segregated, white volunteers harass black ones, and white over black racial privilege is recurrently demonstrated. As Knight repeats to Washington when he attempts to retrieve his son, who has been “apprenticed” by a local planter, “They’ll arrest me, they’ll kill you. They’ll arrest me, they’ll kill you.” While Knight is indeed arrested and able to buy back Washington’s son, Washington is later lynched for recruiting black voters.
This is not to say the film is without interpretive problems. Some of the action scenes are a bit too Hollywoodized; Knight is too uncorrupted; and the decisions to obscure Rachel’s true relationship to the Knight family (she was owned by Newt Knight’s grandfather) as well as her previous children are unfortunate ones. One might also argue that Ross bites off more than he can actually chew in terms of periodization, and that a movie with so much to say would have better lent itself to a cable TV miniseries format. The result of such condensing is artistic limitation in terms of character development and narrative coherence. But, all in all, Free State of Jones is a terrific story capably told. With so much to say about and the social interconnectivity between Civil War and Reconstruction and Jim Crow, my biggest gripe is that it has to say so much so quickly.
Alas, the Lost Cause, the racial and class and political and economic assumptions of which have breached every nook and cranny of American culture and social policy, was constructed in no small part through popular culture; it must also be deconstructed through popular culture. General depictions of anti-Confederate guerillas, the broken promises of land redistribution, and biracial demonstrations of “John Brown’s Body” represent gains not only for historical nuance, but, in exploding toxic Lost Cause myths that still penetrate the core of the American psyche, they represent gains for truth and justice as well.