The Story We Need

Free State of Jones a film by Gary Ross.  With Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali

There are major disputes about what actually happened in the events that make up Free State of Jones, but any story is just a story—it’s not reality—and we seem to get the stories we want, or that we need.  This movie of a populist revolt that says wars are just fought for elites, of a group of black and white men fighting for a common cause (not without their difficulties and antipathies), of women fighting alongside men, seems very 2016 to me, especially all the stuff about the elites.  I was watching this movie in a state that was in the Confederacy, and I heard an unusual amount of murmuring during the film, but wasn’t sure whose side people were on.  (Are you for the Confederates, or the Confederates who were against the Confederates?)  This isn’t the same movie that would have been made fifty years ago, or twenty, or even ten.  And it will inspire protests, like this one from Charles Blow in the New York Times, which I read before sitting down to write my review[1].

Free State of Jones presents an alternate view of the Civil War.  I’ve heard the argument that it wasn’t at all about slavery; it was about states’ rights (a cause Southern states continue to insist on).  This film presents a different perspective: the Confederates were a collection of poor folks fighting so rich folks could have their opulent lifestyles and their slaves.  Both of these things could be true at once, of course.  And every war is poor folks fighting to protect the interests of the rich folks.  That’s always happening.

As the film opens, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) doesn’t quite seem to have drawn that conclusion, though he’s on the verge.  Knight is a nurse, not a combatant, and when one of his fighter friends suggests that another man died nobly, Knight says, “No he didn’t.  He just died.”  Knight sees a lot of death, and a lot of dreadful injury.  He also sees, as we see—and has as always been true—that war is not quite fought by men; it’s fought by raw frightened boys.  That’s part of what makes it so dreadful.

It’s dreadful in general, but becomes particularly so when one of Newt’s kinfolks shows up.  He really is just a kid, and tells Newt that when the Confederate soldiers came to the farm, they robbed the place of its crops and livestock and conscripted him into the service.  Newt tries to lead him to safety—the boy has had no training whatsoever—but fails almost immediately, and the boy is shot and killed.  Finally Newt has had enough.  He wants to take the boy home to be buried, even though that makes him a deserter (and deserters are hanged).  He steals a mule to carry the body for good measure.  He doesn’t care about the consequences.

What Newt finds when he gets home is that the soldiers aren’t taking 10% of the crops, as the Confederacy claims they’re supposed to.  They’re taking everything, at least from poor people (and probably nothing from the large plantations, Newt says later).  The only people there to stand up to them are women and children.  In one notable scene, he and a woman and some little girls do stand up to them, and hold onto their crops for at least a while.  But with that act Newt becomes a traitor and has to go on the lam.

What he finds is that there is a small group of slaves who have taken refuge in the Mississippi swamp.  They’re safe as long as they lie low and don’t bring notice to themselves.  But after a while they do bring notice to themselves, and kill some men to protect themselves, and rob some Confederate soldiers of their plunder.  At that point they’re in full scale rebellion against the rebels, and their movement begins to gain ground.

The movie is based on a book by Sally Jenkins (who appears briefly as an extra).  It apparently contradicts an earlier book, written by a descendent of one of the men Knight murdered, which says that stories of this rebellion are overblown and that it didn’t amount to much.  I’m not a Civil War buff, though I studied the war in school; I wasn’t aware that there was any pro-Union sentiment in the South.  By the time the war comes to its end, the people in the Free State of Jones are a substantial fighting force, and are in touch with General Sherman, receiving arms from him.

I found the movie simultaneously thrilling and difficult to watch.  The battle scenes are brutal, especially one confrontation between Knight and a Confederate officer who had hung some of his compatriots.  Yet I was also thrilled by some of the violent scenes, including one incident where women surprisingly take up arms.  There would be a scene that thrilled me, then one that broke my heart, then one that disgusted me.  This was a Hollywood production, but it was hardly a feel good movie.

I will admit that when Knight’s love interest showed up, a “Creole” woman named Rachel (Gugu Mbath-Raw), I was bothered by how beautiful she was, especially when so many of the white women were plain.  Yet she was supposed to be a house slave, and a particular favorite of her owner.  And though Knight is presented as a hero, he’s not an entirely admirable.  McConaughey gives a shadow to any role he has.  He was a deserter, after all.  And when he first got started he wasn’t launching a pro-Union movement.  He was running from war, because one of his kin got killed.

Knight’s story goes way into Reconstruction and its problems; we see it continue until 1876.  We also see some flash forwards into Mississippi in the fifties, as one of his descendants, who is marrying a white woman, is being decried because he has Negro blood.  This is a Hollywood movie, and what it’s telling is essentially a myth.  But it’s a captivating myth, and points to a truth I had not been aware of.

[1] I don’t disagree with Blow’s complaints, that the movie projects a “white savior” theory of history, that it doesn’t make enough of the evils of slavery, that in particular it overlooks the fact that all sex between slaves and their masters war rape.  But no movie can do everything, and 12 Years a Slave did a lot of what Blow is looking for.  He complains that this isn’t a different movie that he wanted it to be.  But he doesn’t focus on what it actually is.