An earlier and slightly different version of this essay first appeared in Scalawag.
Free State of Jones may well be the most politically important film about the civil war and its aftermath to appear in a quarter century. Produced by Gary Ross, Free State of Jones stars Mathew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a confederate deserter who leads a rebellion against the planter class in Southeastern Mississippi, momentarily uniting yeoman farmers and runaway slaves in an autonomous republic, the Free State of Jones County. This film does for Southern white small farmers, what the 1989 film Glory did for enslaved and free blacks—it provides a rich, textured portrait of their political lives that avoids the bold brush strokes and crude caricatures we have come to expect in fiction and public debate.
The film distills Victoria Bynum’s superb history of the legendary Knight Company, his marriage to former slave and co-conspirator, Rachel, and the interracial family and community they created, the “White Negroes” of the Piney Woods.1 The film’s narrative oscillates between the Knight Company’s exploits during the Civil War and the new battle lines of post-war Reconstruction, and the 1948 criminal trial of Davis Knight, the twenty-three year old great grandson of Rachel and Newton, who was charged with violating Mississippi’s state ban on miscegenation, after he married a white woman, Lee Spradley. In dramatic detail, the film reveals the class war underneath the Civil War, a dimension largely erased by the dominant lore of the Confederate “Lost Cause” that continues to shape Southern and national politics.
Free State of Jones is a proper antidote to identitarian thinking, which has mystified popular understandings of the past, and how we approach political action in the present. In contrast to the prevailing view among so many nowadays that racism has always been and continues to be the main barrier to any progressive left politics, this film reminds us of a more complex history, where anti-slavery politics, Radical Republicanism and mass action created the short-lived progress of Reconstruction.
In his classic 1935 book, Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois characterizes the gathering work stoppages and eventual mass exodus of enslaved blacks from plantations after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation as a general strike. Against the conservative Dunning school of Reconstruction historiography, DuBois illuminates the role that blacks played in winning the war and creating the conditions for federal Reconstruction. Free State of Jones renders part of this history in vivid detail, and conveys a sense of an even more general strike in the process. As slaves put down the hoe and scythe, filling the Union army camps as contraband, increasing numbers of confederate deserters took their long guns and fled into the hollows and swamps, and some switched sides, further weakening the capacity of the southern landlord class to defend their commercial interests.
Historian Mark Lause reminds us in his excellent review of the film that such rebel desertions were not so much exceptions but the rule.2 The fact of confederate desertion and as the film depicts, open rebellion in the Piney Woods, challenges the myth of the pro-slavery Solid South, and should trouble those who still cling to the Confederate Battle Flag and racist nostalgia for an antebellum life that benefited all whites equally. This film renders the drama of war and reconstruction, the personal dalliance and political communion of slaves and yeoman, freedpersons and reformers during this auspicious period with an adroit and nuanced touch that few mainstream commercial American films have attempted.
Not Another “White Savior” Movie
The reaction to Free State of Jones has been swift and in some corners harsh and unforgiving, with some critics rejecting it as yet another white savior story. New York Times columnist Charles Blow dismisses Free State of Jones, concluding that “in the film there are also tired flashes of the Tarzan narrative: a white man who, dropped into a jungle, masters it better than the natives.”3 Blow is also disappointed that “there is little space in the film for righteous black rage and vengeance, but plenty for black humor and conciliation.”4 Blow charges “the movie reduced slavery to an ancillary ephemerality and purges it of too much of its barbarism.” Blow’s characterization does not accurately reflect the events depicted in the film, nor the history examined by Bynum, who he cites.
When I first saw the film’s trailer, I momentarily worried about this being a white savior film as well. Would this be another Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai, where some broken white character places himself in service of the native people, and their suffering serves as catalyst and backdrop for his self-actualization and redemption? This film does not belong in that genre.
For starters, Knight’s transformation begins before his contact with rebel slaves. He and other characters in the film are politicized by the wider class contradictions of the Civil War, with the conflict over slavery as one dimension of this milieu. Working as a confederate nurse, Knight is disturbed by the hypocrisy of the so-called “Twenty Negro Law,” which exempts large slaveholders from military duty, and he is outraged by the daily predation on small farmers by Confederate tax collectors, who seize their corn, hogs and handicrafts to furnish the battlefront.
The film contrasts the fictional planter, James Eakins and the opulence enjoyed by his family, and the austere conditions of the Piney Woods region’s yeomanry, the majority of Jones County. Most of the small farmers who populated Southeastern Mississippi did not own slaves, not so much because of some affinity for blacks and their condition, but because of the republican belief of the period that too much wealth and commercial success would lead to moral decay. In the film, Knight briefly refers to the wide gulf in material prosperity between Jones County’s small farmers and the patricians of the Mississippi Delta valley when he tells soldiers about a house in Natchez rumored to have a golden doorknob. He eventually deserts and rebels once he can no longer withstand the dissonance between this war to defend wealthy planters, and the tremendous hardship, sacrifice and death of the poor it requires.
There is also something more insidious about the “white savior” criticism of the film. By honing in on Knight, the criticism diminishes the role of other characters, particularly the slaves and maroons, who reflect a wider working class culture of mutuality and resistance. The film portrays what are well-documented instances of the frequent and extensive relations of cooperation between slaves, deserters, refugees, and union sympathizers. We first meet Rachel when she is summoned to save Knight’s ill son. The maroons in the Pascagoula swamp also save Knight. After he is mauled by a search party’s dog, they offer him herbal medicine, and perhaps more importantly, they provide his first contact with blacks as men and women, outside the hierarchy and social norms of the town.
The white savior criticism also distorts Knight’s actions, which in numerous scenes, empowers those around him rather than saving anyone as such. Critics who dismiss Knight as a white savior diminish the importance of leadership, a vital aspect of social movements throughout history. At various turns, Knight displays a degree of altruism that is admirable. He risk his own life to find safe haven for his juvenile nephew who as been conscripted to fight. He leaves the battlefront out of a sense of duty to his family. Even though it means putting his own safety in jeopardy, he puts his skill as a blacksmith to use, freeing Moses Washington, one of the maroons who provides refuge to him, from an iron punishment collar. He shows women and children how to use firearms so that they too might join the rebellion against Confederate authorities.
Bynum has offered a helpful corrective to Blow’s review and its distortions of her book, and in particular, she takes up his claim that her work and the film soft-pedal the reality of sexual exploitation and abuse of enslaved women. I would add that The Free State of Jones does not neglect the horrors of slavery and its aftermath. Rape, torture, beatings, daily indignities, the separation of families, and the rise of southern lynch law after the war ends, all loom throughout the film and are portrayed with dramatic, disturbing power.
The white savior criticism offered by Blow and others derives from the broader preoccupation with black agency in contemporary academic and popular discourses. This concern with valorizing black self-assertion originated in response to the long-standing, problematic tendency in fictional and scholarly depictions of American history to neglect or impugn black self-activity. After the release of Stephen Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln, some critics panned the film for focusing exclusively on the machinations of Washington politicians, as the plot centers on the president’s attempts to secure the Congressional votes needed to pass the Thirteenth amendment. An insistence on highlighting the power and agency of blacks themselves during the civil rights movement seemed to guide Ava Duvernay’s 2014 film, Selma, which dramatizes the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. When the film was released, however, veterans of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and some historians of the period criticized it for downplaying and distorting the president’s role in the passage of landmark voting rights legislation. Perhaps, this is an intractable problem.
All cinematic depictions of history are abbreviations of more multifaceted, conjunctural phenomena, and getting to the truth of the matter requires more than two hours or so of passive entertainment. Filmmakers who emphasize black agency seek to inspire pride and similar feats of heroism in their audiences, but they may also obscure the more complex motives of various historical events, actors and processes. The abolition of slavery was not merely a story of Congressional legislation, nor was the civil rights movement the result of black political assertion and direct-action alone. That all being said, some films like Free State of Jones provide us with more politically useful representations of history than others, illuminating the interplay of different historical forces, individual choices and material interests.
The Limits of the Yeoman’s Freedom
Knight should not be characterized as a “white savior” because in the end he is unable to save anyone, and rather than some tidy narrative closure, we are presented with the lingering consequences of powerful interests aligned against the very kind of egalitarian vision embodied in the republic of Jones County, and the marital union of Newton and Rachel Knight.
The Knight Company was borne out of the weakened power of the Confederacy and the merchant-landlord class. In the wake of devastating defeats by Union forces at the Battle of Corinth in the fall 1862 and later at the Siege at Vicksburg the following spring, thousands of southerners deserted the Confederate army. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia in 1865, however, would bring an end to this wartime period of tremendous upheaval and social fluidity, and the conditions which allowed the free state of Jones County to emerge.
The film climaxes as Knight stands before a crowd after they have repelled the Confederate troops at Ellisville and says, “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones.” He outlines the core radically egalitarian principles of the new republic, “no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich…no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for…what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you” and finally, “every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”
We are denied any catharsis in this film, however. There is no happy ending. We might relish the heroic gunfight in the cemetery which pits farmers and slaves against confederate authorities, perhaps the film’s most typically Hollywood scene, but almost as soon as Knight declares the free state of Jones County, things begin to unravel. Union support for the pro-unionist insurrection is tepid, and the end of the war and abolition of slavery gives way to a downward spiral of racist reaction.
Southern states enact black codes, which regulate the movement of freedpersons, restricting their access to cities and towns, and by default, courts, public life and commerce. The erection of apprenticeship laws, which circumvented the thirteenth amendment’s prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude, also shores up the power of the merchant-landlord class and their control over black labor.
In the film, when Washington finds out that his son has been kidnapped and forced into servitude through apprenticeship, he grabs his gun in an unsuccessful rescue attempt. The court room scene that follows is one of the more understated moments in the film, but it is important and contradicts the view of Blow and others who judge cinematic treatments of slavery by how well or graphically they depict the plantocracy’s depravity and violence. When Washington and Knight lose the court case against Eakins, who is protected by property laws, a furious Knight pays Eakins to secure the boy’s release—perhaps the only instance of him being a true white savior. Eakins concedes without a fuss and releases the boy, having maintained his economic advantage. This scene underscores that brutality and torture, like Christianity and the legal system, were methods of maintaining the plantation order, but the essential motive of that system was always profit.
What becomes clear in the film is that small farmers and hired hands were slowly won over to the Democratic Party slogan of white supremacy, with some joining terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts and the Knights of the White Camelia, which were themselves political organizations dedicated to breaking black Republican support throughout the South. The racism of some deserters and small farmers is clear in the film, but those sentiments only partially explain their retreat from the utopian promise of the free state of Jones County, and the turn to reactionary politics. Their motivations were as much economic, an attempt to maintain their relative status as small landholders amid the uncertainty of a war torn and defeated South. In the film, some members of the Knight Company disband after the victory at Ellisville, fearful that they might lose their farms. Even more decisively, such unease about property, the basis of the yeomanry’s nominal independence, heightens after the war and as the power of the merchant-landlord class over the Southern economy and public affairs is gradually restored, foreclosing popular, working class hopes of greater self-assertion.
We get a glimpse of these dynamics in the film as Knight unsuccessfully tries to persuade Jasper Collins, the first lieutenant of the Knight Company and Republican partisan after the war, to talk to the local whites, and convince them to attend a Union League meeting. This process of Democratic party consolidation and the overthrow of Reconstruction governments was uneven, and looked different in Jones County where there were relatively few freedpersons as compared to large port cities like New Orleans and Charleston, or the Mississippi Delta counties. Without federal support for reconstruction, and a land reform program that would have redistributed parcels to the freedmen, insuring them some measure of economic independence, hopes of political freedom were dashed.
In the story of the Jones County insurrection, we are reminded of the limits of marronage and secession, which both entail carving out some small-scale form of political community, outside the authority of larger and more powerful nations. Assertions of independence, however bold, mean little without the power to defend the political community and its values. Slaves throughout the hemisphere created autonomous maroon communities in the wilderness, settlements that often helped to spark rebellion in neighboring plantations. And the Knight Company tried to create its own yeoman’s republic against the plantation class. Others would do the same after the war, forging beyond the Mississippi river and into the plains states and towards the Sierra Nevada, creating independent towns that were momentarily beyond the reach of federal authorities. None of these social experiments, however, could elude American capitalist expansion, the geographic enclosure of the continent through railroads and political annexation, and the economic integration of backwaters and rural counties into the emerging industrial and imperial power.
The Freedperson’s Choice
In his review for The Atlantic, Vann Newkirk II is offended by a moment in the film where Knight, preaching at the graveside of comrades who were hanged by Confederates, says, “Somehow, someway and sometime, everybody is just somebody else’s nigger.” “The notion that white people can be ‘niggers,’” Newkirk writes, “is about as offensive as they come when considering the history of the epithet and how it’s long been utilized by poor whites as a demarcation between whiteness—even its lowest rungs—and blackness. There’s a reason why black people were lynched for voting during Reconstruction and are shot for standing on corners today—one that Knight’s political revolution completely fails to comprehend.”5 Sadly, Newkirk fails to comprehend so much of the history he glosses over in this passage. If you ever hear anyone say liberal arts education is no longer relevant or needed, statements like this one, which butcher history and scoff at serious study, are all the evidence needed to rebuff such talk and argue the merits of critical thinking, interdisciplinarity and analytical rigor.
Oddly, Newkirk’s review ignores what happens next in Newt Knight’s eulogy when he turns to Moses Washington, a runaway slave who later serves as a leader of the Union League in Jones County. Knight asks Washington, “Mr. Moses, Are you a nigger?”
“No. I’m not,” says Washington.
“Well, what are you?” ask Knight.
“I’m a free man, captain.”
“Why is that?” Knight continues.
“Because you cannot own a child of God!” Washington says emphatically.
Newkirk neglects this critical dimension of the graveside eulogy, and how their exchange unmasks the mythology of race, the belief in the natural superiority of one race over another, and at an even deeper level, the belief that there are in fact “races” of human beings, divided in some essential way by nature, culture and capacity. It is also worth noting, as Barbara Fields pointed out some time ago in her 1982 essay, “Ideology and Race in American History,” that what we have come to understand as race is a relatively late-breaking development in history.6 Contrary to popular mythology, race did not solidify at the moment of first contact between Africans and Europeans. Race and racism achieved dominance later as a popular ideology, at the precise moment when the planter class’s control of black labor and the moral legitimacy of slavery were being widely contested.
Newkirk assumes that whiteness and blackness are essential and static categories, totally ignoring how long it took for these markers to become firmly associated with the hierarchies we abide today. The actual history of European immigration and acculturation, and the use of the term “nigger” in public rhetoric are much more complex and surprising that his superficial reading assumes.
Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race, Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, and David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness among numerous other scholarly works, examine the ways each successive wave of “white” immigrants to the U.S. were unwelcomed, met by all manner of xenophobia and ethnic prejudice, which often associated them with enslaved blacks. The experiences of European ethnics were not uniform, nor predetermined by “white skin privilege.”
As the first shots of the Civil War were fired, phrases like “nigger work,” “working like a nigger” and “white nigger” were used by some to describe unskilled, subservient and difficult work undertake by the whites, and often Irish immigrants. In the passage cited above, Newkirk obviously feels the historical weight of the epithet, but clearly misses its highly contextual, varying social meanings. Blow and Newkirk seem to view “race” as a settled matter during the Civil War, and presume that racial identity was the primary and perhaps sole affinity shaping the concerns and actions of slaves, free blacks, small farmers, journeyman, merchants, industrialists and planters in the middle nineteenth century.
Newkirk engages in a dismissal of white workers as perennially racist and reactionary, a practice that has reached the level of blood sport over this past presidential primary election cycle, as all manner of talking heads lined up to write-off the political challenge represented by democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, and to explain the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, both phenomena which many saw as being fueled white male working class rage. White working class voters, of course, supported various candidates across the Democratic and GOP fields. And although Trump’s calls for protectionist policy and his scapegoating of immigrants appealed to large sections of the GOP base, the majority of his supporters during the primary season were in fact middle class and affluent whites, not blue collar voters. Connor Kilpatrick’s “Burying the White Working Class” offers an indispensible, critical review of this conservative tendency among the corporate commentariat.7 Blow and Newkirk were part of this chorus, and their reviews of Free State of Jones read like an encore performance.8
Blow and Newkirk are clearly irritated by any focus on class politics, and only seem capable of viewing the film with their minds set on our current Black Lives Matter moment. “McConaughey’s Knight is a gun-toting avatar of Woke Whiteness, a man who’s both a stylistic and philosophical forefather to so many Millennial social-media users” Newkirk writes, “His message of universal class-based solidarity, as outlined in his quote about ownership of niggers, is as inadequate as theirs in actually identifying and exploring the roots of racial oppression in America.” Newkirk seems to have forgotten that Knight was an actual historical figure, that a small library of books and articles have been written about this life and exploits, and that there is a wider history of the South which cannot be reduced to either symbolic referents or fodder for contemporary debates, a history that is as multidimensional and contradictory as our own times. Of course, Blow and Newkirk might not concede that last point either, because both share a rather limited view of politics where political constituency is equated with identity, rather than understood in terms of actual interests and expressed political commitments.
Neither reviewer seems aware of the wider labor conflicts between whites that defined the Piney Woods region of Southeastern Mississippi and its yeoman inhabitants’ relationship to the wealthier planters and merchants of the cotton belt. These facts of history seemed like an inconvenience to them, an offense to their liberal anti-racist political commitments, and a distraction from concerns about “wokeness,” and the terms of proper “allyship.”
In a sense, these dismissals of Free State of Jones share a strange lineage with Ethel Knight’s The Echo of the Black Horn. She was Newton Knight’s great-grandniece and her 1951 book was an attempt to silence rumors of her family’s miscegenated heritage. Believing that renewed interest in her uncle was due to “communistic elements,” Ethel Knight portrayed Newton as a traitor to his race and the Confederacy rather than some rural southern version of Robin Hood. Leaving no doubt about her allegiances, she dedicated the book to the “Nobel Confederates who lived and died for Jones County.” Ethel Knight also sought to bury the memory and reputation of Rachel Knight, characterizing her as a disloyal slave, a “strumpet” and a “jezebel,” but her attempt at character assassination had the longer-term effect of piquing the interest of latter day researchers in Rachel, her role in the Jones County insurrection, and relationship with Newton Knight.9
Although Ethel Knight’s screed against Newt and Rachel Knight was inspired by her segregationist politics, I am afraid these contemporary critics represent a consonant political sensibility, a dogged commitment to identity politics and the view that interracial cooperation and solidarity are ludicrous and unlikely. If there is a common thread in both Ethel Knight’s revisionist history and those who see Free State of Jones as a white savior film, it is that American politics has always been and should be about staying in one’s ethnic and racial lane. And this is precisely the reason why this film and Bynum’s The Free State of Jones need to be appreciated and discussed widely.
I find it interesting that few of the reviewers who panned the film ever mention the significance of its core black characters, Rachel Knight and Moses Washington, nor the deft performances of Mugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali who portray Rachel and Washington respectively. In public interviews, Ali has been clear about the political virtues of the film, and his own motivations for taking on the role, but his artistic choices and politics do not figure into the broadsides of “white savior” critics.10
Why did Rachel Knight or figures like the fictional Moses Washington, make the choices that they did historically? Why did they choose camaraderie and common cause with white farmers, carpetbaggers and scalawags, instead of “righteous black rage and vengeance”? The kind of race-talk offered by Blow, Newkirk and others, silences the actual historical choices made by thousands of blacks who took up arms against the Confederacy, and who worked alongside whites to advance the Reconstruction project.
This may be the first film I have seen that spends more than a couple frames depicting the Union League, or Loyal League, men’s clubs that were created to strengthen popular commitments to the Union and the Republican Party. As historian Michael W. Fitzgerald details in his book, The Union League Movement in the Deep South, these secret societies were crucial in politicizing freedmen and building black political power after the war, with thousands joining the League in states like Mississippi and Alabama. In Free State of Jones, we witness more than one League meeting. We glimpse the work of the Freedmen’s schools and the intergenerational students who crowded its schoolhouses. We see freedmen marching to the polls singing “John Brown’s Body” and are reminded of the dangerous work of securing the franchise as we watch Washington, going from field to field to register voters. These are stirring and sobering moments, glimpses of a heroic but often forgotten chapter in black political history.
If I have a criticism of this film, it may well be that its extended and brutal denouement will inspire pessimism, inadvertently underwriting the dismal view of history and politics that the film’s broader storyline challenges. As my son said when we walked out of the theatre, “That was difficult to watch.” We know, however, that even after the fall of Reconstruction, freedpersons, small farmers, Radical Republicans and industrial workers strove to build political alternatives, such as the agrarian Populist Movement, the Comité des Citoyens, and the Knights of Labor. Again, why did freedpersons pursue such a politics—progressive, leftist and interracial—given the expanding and constrictive edifice of Jim Crow law?
For those who think that racism is an obstinate barrier to broad popular left politics, how do we explain the actions of black scalesmen, teamsters, and packers in New Orleans, who joined the 1892 general strike in that city? And how were dozens of unions involved able to maintain solidarity during the strike despite virulent anti-black racism in some of the locals? How did they prevail, winning the ten-hour day and overtime pay for workers throughout the city? What is missing from these incessant evasions and put-downs of interracial left progressivism is any serious appreciation of the rich, powerful history of interracial left progressivism itself.
During the age of Obama, hyperbolic racialism has obscured actual alignments and political interests operating within society. Despite his expressed commitment to neoliberal politics, which is antagonistic to the kind of civil rights and social progressivism that defined black political life throughout the Cold War era, Obama’s ascendancy was viewed by legions of supporters as a continuation of earlier black political struggles. In a moment of economic recession, anxiety and political disillusionment, Obama emerged as a personification of black aspiration and object of white racist contempt. The torrent of Right wing, racist attacks against the president, from the astro-turf protests of the Birthers and the TEA Party to the obstructionism of the Republican-controlled Congress and all manner of lesser slights, insults and twisted memes aimed at the first family, have been received as an affront to all blacks, and as evidence of the futility of an alternative politics rooted in the lived experiences and felt needs of working people more broadly. American liberal thinking has long elided class, but the resurgent racialism of the Obama years has made it even more difficult to discuss class interests and politics in a meaningful way.
Perhaps part of the problem here is that the very meaning of class has been lost in our times, too often equated with gradations of education, income and wealth. These markers might serve as rough indicators of class, but none of those categories fully reflect the social character of class, which is a collective relationship to the means of production. In American public debate as well, race is used as a rough proxy for class, with white and black serving as stand-ins for rich and poor, middle class and welfare dependent. There is also a longer, problematic history of thinking about the working class that distinguishes wage laborers from slaves, peasants and domestic workers. Free State of Jones reminds us of this core truth of class with respect to labor, whether paid or unpaid—the shared material conditions and shared interests of those who are compelled by force or necessity to work. In today’s economy where job security and living wages are scarce, many people know what it means to be overworked, underpaid and disposable—what it is like to be “somebody else’s nigger”—even if they resent being associated with those who have long symbolized hyperexploitation and dispossession.
This film is valuable for how well it reveals historical complexities of race, class and power in America, and for what it says about political life and democratic possibility. Free State of Jones should unsettle us, and the ideas about race that dominate our times. If the prevailing view in many corners is that racism is America’s “original sin” and that every attempt to abolish inequality and exploitation has been thwarted by the scourge of white supremacy, Free State of Jones challenges such thinking. The film does not diminish the brutal and dehumanizing character of slavery, nor the vulnerability endured by freedpersons during Reconstruction. It captures those realities in disturbing detail, but it also provides us with an insightful parable of progressive left politics.