“Hunger Games” writer & director Gary Ross’ impressive American Civil War epic “Free State of Jones” (**** OUT OF ****), starring Matthew McConaughey, ranks as the best theatrical release of summer 2016. Ostensibly, this factual American Civil War period drama breaks ranks not only with traditional sagas about the Civil War but also is relevant to contemporary racial issues. Essentially, Hollywood specializes in two types of Civil War movies. First, you have those about Union battlefield victories, like “Gettysburg” (1993) and “The Horse Soldiers” (1959). Second, you have those about Confederate triumphs on and off the battlefield, such as “The Raid” (1954), about the Saint Albans foray in Vermont. These movies tend to alienate Northern and Southern audiences. Presumably, part of the reason for the scant number of American Civil War movies is the polarities they generate. Southerners abhor having defeat rubbed into their noses. Similarly, the politically correct loathe notorious pro-Southern movies like “Gods and Generals” (2003) that applaud ‘the Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy. If “Free State of Jones” achieves anything of distinction, it shows that not all native-born Southern whites whistled “Dixie” during the Civil War. Consequently, “Free State of Jones” qualifies as a revisionist film. Forget about that travesty of a movie “Tap Roots” (1948) that Universal Pictures based loosely on the Jones County insurrection that the Matthew McConaughey movie commemorates. The only recent major theatrical Civil War movie that has shown the seamier side of the South was writer & director Anthony Minghella’s “Cold Mountain” (2003), starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, and Renée Zellweger. Kidman portrayed a destitute wife in “Cold Mountain” who contended with despicable Confederate soldiers assigned to patrol the home-front where she resided. These unsavory Confederates terrorized poor Southern families and intimidated widows when they were not engaged actively in searching for and executing deserters. The male protagonist in “Cold Mountain” was a Confederate deserter (Jude Law) struggling to get home to his wife. Along the way, the Jude Law character joined runaway slaves and they helped him conceal himself from pugnacious Confederate patrols. Similarly, Ross’ “Free State of Jones” follows the exploits of rebellious Confederate Army medic Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey of “Interstellar”) who deserted and embarked on a home-front campaign against the Confederacy that tied down troops that could have been more strategically employed against Union forces.
Historically, “Free State of Jones” is one of the few accurate films about the Civil War. According to Mississippi History Now, the Mississippi Historical Society’s on-line publication, Knight lived in Jones County, and Jones County owned the least number of slaves in the state. Most Civil War historians will tell you the non-slave owning sections of the old South, principally the hill counties, espoused Unionist sentiments. Unfortunately, anybody who shirked their duty to serve in the army often found themselves in front of a firing squad. Mississippi History Now states that “on May 13, 1862, Newt Knight enlisted as a private with his friends and neighbors into Company F of the Seventh Battalion, Mississippi Infantry in Jasper County. They enlisted together so they could avoid being drafted away to serve with strangers. After the war, Newt claimed that he only agreed to serve as an orderly to care for the sick and wounded.” Eventually, Knight assembled a home-grown militia of Confederate deserters and fugitive African-American slaves and mounted a resistance movement against the Confederacy. When the army wasn’t tangling with Knight and his militia, they preyed on impoverished Southerners and imposed heavy taxes on them to benefit the Confederate cause. The Army appropriated crops and livestock and left the widows to starve. Historian Rudy H. Leverett, in his book “Legend of the Free State of Jones,” points out that Knight and his militia clashed 14 times with Confederate soldiers. Ross stages these violent encounters with enough cinematic blood and thunder to justify an R-rating. Meantime, according to Mississippi History Now, the controversial “Twenty Negro Law” prompted Newton to desert from the Confederacy. Newton’s friend and fellow soldier Jasper Collins hated this law, too. If he owned 20 slaves or more, a planter was exempt from military service. Reportedly, Collins uttered the immortal words, “This law … makes it a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Basically, Ross turns Newton Knight into a Robin Hood figure that united escaped slaves and disenfranchised white Southerners. Moreover, Ross has turned the Confederate Army into the equivalent of Robin Hood’s infamous adversary–the cruel Sheriff of Nottingham. At the same time, Knight trained vulnerable women and children in the art of self-defense. In one memorable scene, Knight arms adolescent girls with weapons, and these girls convince a Confederate patrol to skedaddle. Eventually, after several savage skirmishes, Knight strangles a prominent Confederate officer with his bare hands in the film’s single instance of vengeance. After the war, Knight conducted a campaign for racial inequality for African-Americans despite overwhelming opposition from intractable whites.
Rarely does Hollywood illuminate the plight of the poor white farmers who opposed both the Confederacy and the wealthy slave owners who sought to preserve ‘the peculiar institution.’ Before “Cold Mountain,” “Tap Roots” (1948) and “Shenandoah” (1965) were the only movies that tackled anti-Confederate sentiment. Although inspired by Newton Knight’s deeds, “Tap Roots” shared more in common with “Gone with the Wind” (1939), while “Shenandoah” (1965) depicted an obstinate Virginian patriarch (James Stewart) who refused to let his sons participate in the war. Ultimately, the thing that distinguishes good movies from bad is good films offer something new and refreshing. “Free State of Jones” presents a historical narrative of far greater depth and complexity than previous Civil War movies. In our woebegone, politically correct era, when holier-than-thou factions harangue Southerners discriminately about flying the Confederate Star and Bars battle flag, “Free State of Jones” rejects the notion that every Southerner subscribed to slavery and succession. Altogether, Gary Ross’ “Free State of Jones” isn’t comparable to Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” but this authentic actioneer displays more than enough of those sentiments.
“Your imagination can take you where nothing else can.” Van Roberts