Entry 35: Putting History First in Jones County

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Free State of Jones. Directed by Gary Ross. Written by Gary Ross and Leonard Hartman.

Release Date: June 24, 2016.

I think I’ve gotten pretty good at generating quick opinions about pieces of culture, especially during the 18 months I’ve been writing this blog. But no entry has given me as much trouble as this one. Free State of Jones  is a unique film that prizes historical accuracy over dramatic tension or traditional narrative tropes. This is a rare thing and challenged my usual assumptions about both art and historical fiction. Whether that makes it a good film largely depends on your interest in the Civil War Era and southern history.

Fortunately for the film, I am very interested in both these topics. Thus, I spent its entire 135 minutes intellectually engaged and repeatedly surprised by its level of historical detail. The attention it gives to Reoconstruction is especially impressive, given how popular culture has neglected that period. Although the film has a generally slow pace, I sensed Ross’s excitement putting this story and its broader historical context onscreen. Like reading a manuscript from a fellow historian, Ross’s enthusiasm doesn’t show in flash and verve but in the way he packs so much into his product. Combine this with his website, and you get the feeling Ross is dying to share this story with as many people as possible. He’s not an incompetent filmmaker and the movie has its high points as art, but this is an attempt to accurately re-create a piece of history more than anything else.

Many critics have been turned off by this history lesson vibe. They’re free to do so and I had some problems too, but we should judge Free State of Jones by its own standards. This film values the broader historical story its telling over those of its characters, and Hollywood doesn’t do that very often. Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey, whose engaging performance is critical to the film’s success—viva le McConaussance!) is clearly the protagonist and most of the film is devoted to telling the story of his “Knight Company”—a group of southern deserters and runaway slaves who rebelled against the Confederacy—but it often seems Ross is just using this story as a means of exploding Lost Cause myths about a solid Confederate South and giving us the first real major motion picture depiction of ground-level Reconstruction. In fact, Newt doesn’t really have a narrative arc. He’s pretty much the same guy from start to finish. Things happen to him, but there’s no internal change. Ross isn’t interested in adapting Newt’s story into a traditional hero’s journey, just presenting Newt as Ross believes he was.

And it’s Ross’s depiction of Newt that invites the most historical criticism. Free State of Jones gives us the most positive possible interpretation of Newt Knight and his Civil War campaign. We first see him in the Confederate Army, where he already has no interest in fighting. Instead, he helps wounded soldiers get treatment at the local field hospital and tries to protect a nephew from artillery fire, with little regard for his military duty or position on the battlefield. A few minutes later, he encounters an enslaved African American (his future consort, Rachel, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and offers to get her water, thereby showing he sees her as equal and not property. Having re-read Victoria Bynum’s Free State of Jones in preparation for the film, I was struck by how little she or anyone actually knows about Newt. Bynum notes there’s no evidence he was an abolitionist or believed in racial equality, but he’s such an obscure figure interpreters like Ross are free to fill in gaps. Ross has chosen to depict Newt as the best white man he could have been. Ross could believe that’s who Newt was or this is the best way to show the lost potential of emancipation and Reconstruction. Either way, it’s not an unreasonable characterization, even if it doesn’t quite jive with Bynum’s (or my own).

If the film has a major artistic problem, it’s that Ross tries to pack in too much historical detail without much regard for traditional storytelling. I found this worked for most of the film, but the seams started to show during the last act. Up to this point, Ross gives us a pretty straightforward narrative from Newt’s time in the Confederate Army to the rise of the “Knight Company” and the declaration of the Free State of Jones (although he sprinkles in occasional flash forwards to Newt’s descendant, Davis Knight’s, 1948 miscegenation trial). Once the Civil War ends, Ross strains to convey as much information as he can about Reconstruction while still keeping Newt and his allies—especially freedman Moses (Mahershala Ali)—in focus. Suddenly, we’re presented with historical photographs and captions to bring us up to speed and place the action within the complicated and rapidly changing context of Reconstruction. I agree with critics who say this plays a little awkwardly, but I nevertheless reveled in seeing Reconstruction depicted so honestly and accurately. Ross eschews myths about carpetbaggers and northern radicals to keep the focus where it belongs—on how Black Codes and vigilantism maintained white supremacy in the postwar South. It’s a story rarely told and Ross should be commended for telling it, even if it makes the final act a little disjointed and bloated.

Indeed, until the last act, I kept wondering what critics found so objectionable about this movie. It rarely connected with me emotionally, so I can’t say I was smitten by it, but I remained engaged throughout. I can understand why it left some viewers cold (at least one theater-goer bailed in my screening), but the emerging critical consensus is overly harsh. Free State of Jones commendably explores two topics long neglected by mainstream popular culture: southern Civil War unionism and Reconstruction. That it depicts them well means historians, at least, should embrace it. Audiences could learn a lot from this movie and, while it does occasionally play a little lifeless as I feared it might, it’s good enough and smart enough that it deserves a wide audience.

Additional Dispatches:

  • I can’t believe I agree with A. O. Scott. I almost never agree with A. O. Scott.
  • A lot of criticism has targeted Ross’s inclusion of the Davis Knight trial and the heavy use of historical photographs and captions. Although I appreciated what Ross was trying to achieve, I generally concur that these didn’t really work. All three elements don’t pop up early and consistently enough to prevent them from feeling forced when they do appear.
  • Another criticism I’ve seen is of the film’s summer release and I totally concur. Free State of Jones would have seemed more comfortable among winter prestige pictures instead of next to a sequel about giant flying saucers blowing up famous landmarks.
  • I try to weigh in on how Civil War films use historical music, and Jones gets a split grade. On the downside, one of Knight’s men plays Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer” in camp, presumably sometime in 1863. This would have been impossible, as the song was famously published after Foster’s March 1864 death, when it was found in his pocket after he tripped and fatally hit his head on a bedpan. On the upside, the film has Knight and his men sing “John Brown’s Body” as they march to vote during Reconstruction. Kudos for choosing this over the currently popular but less historically accurate “Battle Hymn of the Republic” but marks off for showing the “Battle Hymn’s” enduring influence by mistakenly ending each verse with its refrain “His truth is marching on” instead of “John Brown’s” “His soul is marching on.”
  • Does it mention slavery?: It certainly does, although the script seems to delay making Newt an anti-slavery figure, even if it doesn’t really depict any personal growth on the issue. When he decides to desert the Army of Tennessee, he’s primarily motivated by the Conscription Act’s “20 Negro Rule” rather than any opposition to slavery. Once he’s back in Jones County, though, the film quickly gets him into the swamps to “lie out” with some escaped slaves and make common cause with them.

Next Entry: The Keeping Room

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5 comments

  1. ladylavinia1932 · December 22

    I can understand why it left some viewers cold (at least one theater-goer bailed in my screening), but the emerging critical consensus is overly harsh.

    It is possible that the media simply did not like the story it had to tell . . . or its historical background. Deserting Confederates and former/escaped slaves bonding together to deal with the planters’ authority during the war? Has Hollywood ever tackled this subject before?

  2. Pingback: The Free State of Jones | Charles Kenneth Roberts
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  5. Pingback: This historian’s humble thoughts on Free State of Jones | History Headlines

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