The Free State of Jones: A Roundtable

Posted in Articles, Communications/Media Studies, History, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Mississippi, United States on 2017-11-13 01:33Z by Steven

The Free State of Jones: A Roundtable

Civil War History
Volume 63, Number 4, December 2017
pages 400-420

Joseph Beilein (JB), Assistant Professor of History
Pennsylvania State University, Behrend

Margaret Storey (MS), Professor of History and Associate Dean
DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois

Andrew Slap (AS), Professor of History
East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tenneessee

Jarret Ruminski (JR), Freelance Writer, researcher, and Consultant
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Ryan Keating (RK), Civil War History book review editor; Assistant Professor of History
California State University, San Bernardino

The summer of 2016 saw the release of the first large-budget Civil War film since 2012’s critically acclaimed Lincoln. The Free State of Jones, directed by Gary Ross and starring Matthew McConaughey, is not simply, however, another film about the Civil War. Based on historian Victoria Bynum’s acclaimed book The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, this film marks an important shift in the popular depiction of America’s greatest conflict as it takes viewers inside the complex inner civil wars many Americans fought during this period. Long defined as a conflict pitting the north against the south, the realities of the Civil War were, as this film attempts to show, much more complex. Questions of loyalty and issues of patriotism have become an important part of the historiography of the Civil War era, illustrating the ways average men and women, North and South, struggled with the collision of national and local issues. Although the nuances of patriotism and loyalty have long driven the scholarly community, these issues have played a less important role in public, and especially Hollywood, portrayals of the war and the Reconstruction era. Certainly, past films have touched on the subject. Ride with the Devil, Pharaoh’s Army, and Cold Mountain, for example, all touch on patriotism and loyalty, as the main characters struggle with the consequences of the war on the home front. Based on a true story, Free State of Jones, is, however, the first to truly analyze this struggle through the lens of southern dissent. Following the experiences of Mississippian Newton Knight, a disillusioned southern soldier who returns home to lead a revolt against Confederate authorities in Mississippi, the film strikes at the heart of the complex nature of identity, patriotism, and loyalty during the Civil War and Reconstruction and gives viewers a rare glimpse into aspects of the war often overlooked by Hollywood film.

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Free State of Jones Capsizes Lost Cause Myths

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Mississippi, Slavery, United States on 2016-07-29 00:30Z by Steven

Free State of Jones Capsizes Lost Cause Myths

Process: A Blog For American History
2016-07-12

Matthew E. Stanley, Assistant Professor of History
Albany State University, Albany, Georgia

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…

Read the entire article here.

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The Real Rebels: A Review of Free State of Jones with Reflections on Lost Causes

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Mississippi, Slavery, United States on 2016-07-24 02:03Z by Steven

The Real Rebels: A Review of Free State of Jones with Reflections on Lost Causes

The Labor And Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)
2016-07-12

Mark Lause, Professor of History
University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio

I can feel a certain sympathy for people who get hoodwinked into fighting for a Lost Cause that could never be worthy of the blood and treasure spent on its behalf. After all, as a child of the Cold War, my own closest brush with toting a gun to war came during Vietnam. In that conflict, the government, both political parties, the military, the media, the universities, the corporations, and the entire power structure insisted that the triumph of a Vietnamese effort to control of their own country would start toppling dominoes that would end in Anytown, U.S.A. By the end, most Americans actually doubted this. In hindsight, there’s no real issue as to whether the power structure of the people were correct, though some feel obligated to pretend otherwise.

Responses to the Free State of Jones by Gary Ross, and starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Mahershala Ali demonstrate that such denials of experience can last a long time. The movie offers a fictionalized version of the revolt of poor Southerners against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi. Newton Knight worked on medical duties at the front until his disgust with the war inspired his desertion and return home. “Captain” Knight held that title for his role as the leader of guerilla forces that successfully made parts of southern Mississippi a no-go zone for Confederate tax gatherers and conscript officers. It is based on Victoria E. Bynum’s superb historical account The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), and aims to be much more truthful than Hollywood’s first attempt at the subject in 1948, Tap Roots.

Free State of Jones directly confronts the issues of class and race that Tap Roots downplayed or avoided. This fact, in part, explains the mixed reviews.

A movie is not a documentary, of course. The page dedicated to Free State of Jones at “History vs. Hollywood” provides a useful corrective, and I would urge everybody who liked the movie to read Bynum’s book…

Read the entire article here.

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Crucifying the White Savior (Film)

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Mississippi, Slavery, United States on 2016-07-19 19:44Z by Steven

Crucifying the White Savior (Film)

Shadow and Act
2016-06-29

Andre Seewood

We no longer have to forgive them, for they know exactly what they are doing.

The new film by Gary Ross, “The Free State of Jones” is uncontestably a White savior film. Laid bare, “The Free State of Jones” is a simplistically constructed tale of a Confederate army deserter who eventually lives in a polygamous relationship with a Black former slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with whom he has a mixed race child and his White wife and their White child. The film’s story is a heroification of the 1862 true story of Newton Knight a real Confederate deserter from Jones County, Mississippi, who ironically didn’t actually “save” anyone, but instead merely prolonged the inevitable suffering of those Blacks and his mixed race progeny who were trapped within the White supremacist power structure of the United States of America.

The film builds its White savior character not in the broad conflicts between Confederate and Union soldiers, Free Black men and the KKK, but in small scenes of selfless heroism and demonstrative yet intimate “White-man- taking-charge- and-directing- the-actions- of-others” scenes that accumulate over the course of the two-and- a-half- hour film until there is no doubt about who is saving whom in a battle and who desperately needed to be protected from whom in a White supremacist society. Yet “The Free State of Jones” is an oddly racially segregated film that separates its Black token characters from its White fully developed characters, even as they fight (presumably) together to protect their illegal territory. There are certain battle and robbery scenes where no Black token is shown and others where Black tokens fight next to each other but are segregated from their fellow White fighters, revealing that Knight’s Free State was conditional at best. Moreover, the film never manages to convince the skeptical spectator that Knight’s higher ideals of freedom, autonomy, and “Every man is a man” equality were not simply rooted in his adulterous lust for a Black woman’s body.

However, if we take off the metaphorical rose colored glasses that director Gary Ross has placed in front of the camera, it is not too difficult to see that Newton Knight was merely a Confederate deserter who wanted to have his cake and eat it too- a Black mistress and a White wife – and through the benefit of his White privilege, he was allowed to do so with peculiar impunity until the end of his days…

Read the entire article here.

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The Faux-Enlightened Free State of Jones

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Mississippi, Slavery, United States on 2016-07-16 01:19Z by Steven

The Faux-Enlightened Free State of Jones

The Atlantic
2016-06-28

Vann R. Newkirk II


STX Productions

Matthew McConaughey’s new movie is a predictable but instructive journey of white saviorhood.

“Somehow, some way, and some time, everybody is somebody else’s nigger,” is an actual quote that happens around midway through Free State of Jones. Uttered by Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight, a Confederate nurse-turned-deserter-turned-freedom-fighter in defense of one of his black comrades, it’s perhaps the most oblivious remark about race in a film that is remarkable mostly for its astounding oblivion about race. At that point, an hour and change into a narrative slog as thick as the Mississippi swamp where Knight and his diverse buddies hide, it becomes apparent that the film is going nowhere fast.

But to cast Free State of Jones aside as just another bad summer movie might be missing the point. Written and directed by Gary Ross, it’s held back by a slow, disjointed plot that doesn’t quite know what it wants to do, and it betrays no signs of having attempted to develop characters. But with its badness comes a real opportunity for instruction: The film’s ideas about race and its main character Knight are textbook examples of how not to have conversations about white privilege, “allyship,” and black struggle. As such, they invite a closer look…

Read the entire review here.

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Black and White in the Free State of Jones

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Mississippi, Slavery, United States on 2016-07-16 00:00Z by Steven

Black and White in the Free State of Jones

Process: A Blog For American History
2016-07-14

Nina Silber, Professor of History
Boston University

I’ll confess: I was fully prepared to be disappointed with the recently-released Free State of Jones. Not out of any disrespect toward the excellent historical scholarship behind the film, including Victoria Bynum’s superb book by the same name which helped inspire filmmaker Gary Ross’ initial interest. Rather, my skepticism stems from a long history of bad Civil War films, a history that includes truly atrocious movies like Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, and Gods and Generals. As these films attest, Civil War film-making has frequently been an exercise in myth-making and obfuscation: these movies have, repeatedly, erased the central problem of slavery; ignored the critical role of African American slaves and freedpeople in fighting for emancipation; and portrayed Southern whites as the victims of a tyrannical Northern onslaught, both during but especially after the war had ended. These movies fit in a long history of what, in my recent JAH article, I refer to as “the imagined reconstitution of the nation,” an imagining that privileged the sectional reunification of whites while pushing African Americans to the sidelines. Free State of Jones, in stark contrast, generally gets the central historical narrative right and even manages to tell some complicated history in a moving and compelling manner. Most notably, it effectively pushes back on some of the most deeply entrenched myths of all: on the true meaning and significance of Reconstruction

Read the entire review here.

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But [Newton] Knight was an actual historical figure who aided African-Americans, and the film is based on a well-researched book by historian Victoria Bynum.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2016-07-03 22:17Z by Steven

Some critics complain that the film suffers from a white savior narrative because [Matthew] McConaughey plays a white protagonist who aids former slaves. But [Newton] Knight was an actual historical figure who aided African-Americans, and the film is based on a well-researched book by historian Victoria Bynum.

Adam Domby, “‘Free State of Jones’ depicts realities of Reconstruction,” The Post and Courier, July 3, 2016. http://www.postandcourier.com/20160703/160709926/free-state-of-jones-depicts-realities-of-reconstruction.

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‘Free State of Jones’ leader Newt Knight in his own words

Posted in Articles, History, Interviews, Media Archive, Mississippi, United States on 2016-07-02 18:00Z by Steven

‘Free State of Jones’ leader Newt Knight in his own words

The New Orleans Times-Picayune
2016-06-24

James Karst, Senior Editor


A photograph of Newton Knight from the New Orleans Item on March 20, 1921.

This interview with Newton Knight of Mississippi was originally published in the March 20, 1921, edition of the New Orleans Item. It was believed at the time to have been the only time Knight spoke to the press about the “Free State of Jones,” the subject of a new movie starring Matthew McConaughey as Knight and filmed in Louisiana.

The Knight interview is reprinted here in its entirety.

By Meigs O. Frost

The New Orleans Item

Far up in the heart of Jasper County, Mississippi, amidst a forest of pine and oak, where winding woodland paths lead through a tangle of thick underbrush, lives a man now nearing his ninety-second year.

Volumes have been written around him. Testimony of men now living, of men long dead, has been taken for and against him. Frugal of speech, he has gone his way through the years, careless of what men said of him in the outside world into which he ventures rarely. In simplicity primeval he has lived, as in primeval simplicity he will die.

That man is Newton Knight, captain throughout the Civil War of the famous Knight’s Company that ranged Jasper County and “The Free State of Jones,” as the neighboring Jones County is christened in some histories.

“Uncle Newt” Knight here for the first time in all the years breaks his silence to tell his story to The Item. As he recounts the tale, it is an epic of the Civil War. About him, he says, were banded men who, owning no slaves, believing in the Union of Abraham Lincoln, hoped either to fight through the Confederate cordon and join the Union forces or hoped that the Yankee ranks would fight through to them.

As others in Jones and Jasper County, staunch Confederates throughout the war, tell the tale, Newt Knight’s Company was composed of “bushwhacking deserters” from the armies of the Confederate States.

More than half a century has passed since men in this part of Mississippi bore arms for the Lost Cause. Their sons and their sons’ sons since then have fought overseas for the United States of America.

Yet beneath the surface in Jones and Jasper Counties still rankles the feeling that Uncle Newt Knight’s Company engendered when from 1862 to the end of the Civil War it defied the armed forces of the Confederacy and remained unconquered, though surrounded by Confederate armies from start to finish.

Whether Knight’s Company was a band of men whose loyalty to the Union was beyond their loyalty to the South; whether it was a band of Confederate deserters who simply “hid out” in the brush to avoid army service — those are questions that will be debated in Jones and Jasper Counties of Mississippi when the headstone of the last combatant has been long overgrown with moss.

But here and now enters Newton Knight into the Court of Public Opinion with his tale — a story that he told to me in the ninety-first year of his age, speaking with a mind apparently as unclouded and keen as that of one five decades younger than he…

Read the entire article here.

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Charles Blow blows his horn in the New York Times

Posted in Articles, History, Media Archive, Slavery, United States on 2016-06-29 20:19Z by Steven

Charles Blow blows his horn in the New York Times

Renegade South: Histories of Unconventional Southerners
2016-06-27

Victoria Bynum, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History
Texas State University, San Marcos

In today’s New York Times, opinion editor Charles Blow delivers a harsh critique of the movie, Free State of Jones, arguing that its treatment of slavery in general and the rape of slave women in particular amounts to a “genteel treatment” of the institution. Blow then turns to my book “The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, and accuses me of using “grossly inappropriate descriptors” to characterize what in reality was rape. To demonstrate, he quotes the following passage from my book:

Through encounters with women such as Rachel, Newt knew that white men regularly crossed the color line despite laws and social taboos that forbade interracial liaisons and marriages. Rachel, light-skinned and physically attractive, was the sort of slave after whom many white men lusted. The fact that she had a white-skinned daughter announced to interested men that she had already been “initiated” into the world of interracial relations. (page 86)

With great indignation, Blow then exclaims, “Encounters? Liaisons? Initiated? Sexual relations? As long as she was a slave this was rape! Always. Period.”

I responded in the comments section of his op ed with the following:…

Read the entire article here.

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White Savior, Rape and Romance?

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, History, Media Archive, Mississippi, Slavery, United States on 2016-06-28 01:41Z by Steven

White Savior, Rape and Romance?

The New York Times
2016-06-27

Charles M. Blow

The movie “Free State of Jones” certainly doesn’t lack in ambition — it sprawls so that it feels like several films stitched together — but I still found it woefully lacking.

The story itself is quite interesting. It’s about Newton Knight, a white man in Mississippi during and after the Civil War, who organizes and mounts a somewhat successful rebellion against the Confederacy. He falls in love with a mixed-race slave named Rachel, and they establish a small community of racially ambiguous relatives that a book of the same title calls “white Negroes.”

It is easy to see why this story would appeal to Hollywood executives. It has a bit of everything, with eerie echoes of modern issues.

It comes in the wake of “12 Years a Slave,” at a time when slave narratives are en vogue, only this story emphasizes white heroism and centers on the ally instead of the enslaved.

It tries desperately to cast the Civil War, and specifically dissent within the Confederacy, as more a populism-versus-elitism class struggle in which poor white men were forced to fight a rich white man’s war and protect the cotton trade, rather than equally a conflict about the moral abhorrence of black slavery.

Throughout, there is the white liberal insistence that race is merely a subordinate construction of class, with Newt himself saying at the burial of poor white characters, “somehow, some way, sometime, everybody is just somebody else’s nigger.”

And, by extension, there is the lingering suggestion of post-racialism because, as the author Victoria E. Bynum writes in the book’s preface, the relationship between Newt and Rachel “added the specter of interracial intimacy to the story.”…

Read the entire review here.

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