I watched the recently released Civil War / Reconstruction movie Free State of Jones. It stars Matthew McConaughey and is directed by Gary Ross, previously best known for Seabiscuit. The movie is based on the book by historian Victoria Bynum and had an all-star cast of historical consultants including David Blight, Eric Foner, and John Stauffer. Ross even went so far as to post primary sources related to the story online. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of a movie director showing his work like that, but you’ll never hear a historian complain about having footnotes! Bravo!
I went to see the film with some trepidation given the poor review scores on Rotten Tomatoes. After first watching the trailer several months ago, I shared the concern of several reviewers that the script would elevate McConaughey’s character into a “Great White Savior.” (He literally walks towards the camera with fire in the background and steel in his eyes. That’s about as Saviour-y as you can get!) This isn’t modern political correctness speaking. The white savior idea has a long history that goes back to the deification of Abraham Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, who gave his life so that poor, passive slaves might be freed. In contrast, the last half century of historical work has focused instead on the ways in which slaves freed themselves through resistance in slavery, attempts at escape, and those who enlisted as soldiers in the Union army.
I also worried that the movie would get the typical Hollywood treatment. Often what happens is that the director’s concern for accuracy extends primarily to the least important details. They make sure the outfits are accurate down to the proper brass buttons, or that the buildings have the correct architectural details, or that the accents line up. Directors get so wrapped up in these little things that they miss the forest for the trees. They end up modernizing the more important general themes and then cloaking them in period costume. It’s also hard for filmmakers to avoid heightening the story, adding in dollops of additional drama, romance, and action beyond what’s naturally there. It’s a habit seemingly motivated by a low view of moviegoers, who are assumed to have the…SQUIRREL!…attention span…CAR!…of a pet border collie.
I’m happy to report that I was (mostly) wrong. McConaughey was obviously the protagonist, so he received more screen time than any other character. Newton Knight is going to be the central figure in any story about Newton Knight, no surprise there. But the scriptwriter created a major supporting character, named Moses (played by Mahershala Ali of House of Cards fame), who steals every scene he’s in. Likewise, the filmmakers give a major supporting role to Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Knight’s black common law wife. Furthermore, they resisted the temptation to smooth all the rough edges off the love triangle between Knight, Mbatha-Raw’s character, and Knight’s white first wife (played by Keri Russell). To appease some critics of the movie would’ve required telling the story of someone other than Newton Knight, but short of that I think the filmmakers did a reasonable job of not whitewashing the story.
That’s not to say that the filmmakers don’t make some questionable calls. For example, there are two scenes set at Union League meetings during Reconstruction. Union League chapters in the South were almost entirely composed of black Republicans. It’s certainly possible that Newton Knight attended meetings given his involvement in the interracial state militia (white officers, black enlisted), but it’s one thing to have Knight sitting in the audience and entirely another for the filmmakers to give him one of only two League speeches (the other going to Moses). There’s no indication that Knight spoke at a Union League meeting in the historical record, so why add unnecessary fuel to the Great White Savior bonfire?
The story did get the Hollywood treatment. There are major battles involving cannons and even a funeral ambush led by pistol-packing, female mourners. In reality, Knight’s company fought in a few minor skirmishes with no more than a handful of casualties on either side. There’s also no evidence of women fighting for Knight although they contributed to the movement in other important ways. Not only are these battle scenes inaccurate, they’re also the most boring part of the movie. We’ve all seen plenty of military action movies filled with blood and smoke; we don’t need another one with mediocre production values that panders to contemporary gender expectations.
That said, the movie is saved by its third act. Up until then I thought it a well-intentioned film that missed more often than it hit and that it said little about the Civil War that audiences didn’t already know. We’ve already had movies dealing with Confederate desertion (Cold Mountain) and home-front unrest (Pharoah’s Army). I was prepared to leave disappointed. But when the movie finally gets to Reconstruction it leaves a mark! Partly that’s because Reconstruction always gets short shrift in film. Everybody appreciates watching battlefield heroics, the drama of the fight for abolition, and the human tragedy of slavery. But Reconstruction is a story of defeat. The North won the Civil War but the South won Reconstruction. Blacks were re-subjugated into a Jim Crow segregation that was as near to slavery as southern states could get away with. Free State of Jones tells that story with pathos and understanding.
The lynching scene was properly horrifying. As I tell my classes, in just six months of 1868 in just the state of Louisiana, 1,081 mostly black Republicans were murdered by white paramilitary organizations including the White League (contra the Union League). For sake of comparison, that’s more killed in half a year than the total number of American soldiers killed during any single, full year of the Iraq War. In other words, the white supremacist insurgency in a single state following the Civil War was more than twice as deadly as the Iraqi insurgency on a year by year basis. If anything, Free State of Jones underplays the scale of the tragedy, although it does better than any other movie I can think of.
The movie includes the first ever scenes involving Union League meetings. It also depicts the Black Codes, a Freedmen’s School, and even the renaming of Jones county for Jefferson Davis. Each of these moments is evocative of a wider phenomenon in Reconstruction history. If only the director had cut some of the lingering shots of Knight’s company lounging in the swamps or the lengthy (and ahistorical) action sequences and instead expanded his coverage of Reconstruction.
After finishing the movie, a friend objected to wasting time on a story that “doesn’t matter.” Indeed, the movie ends with a series of failures. Knight’s black allies are dead, his white allies cowed, and his white enemies in charge. The final scene shows Knight’s great-grandson being convicted in the 1940s of violating the state’s anti-miscegenation law by marrying a white woman despite being 1/8th black. He defiantly refuses to accept a reduced penalty in exchange for annulling his marriage, but even so the movie hardly ends on a high note. The overwhelming power of white supremacy effectively erased the memory of the Free State of Jones. (And to this day, you’ll find historical markers and monuments honoring Confederate stalwarts littering southern highways and towns. Former slaves and anti-secessionists are conspicuous only by their absence.)
So does that mean the story of the Free State of Jones isn’t worth telling? Should we skip Reconstruction in our filmic diet, instead watching only films about the victories of the 20th century civil rights movement? By no means!
Historians of the 20th century civil rights movement often describe it as the “Second Reconstruction.” Reconstruction was a promise unfulfilled, but African-Americans following the Civil War fought every bit as hard as their descendants would several generations later. And they died in even larger numbers. Lynching was at its peak during this period, not during the 1950s-1960s. They gave even more blood, more sweat, more tears. It was not their fault that white supremacists–typically led by former Confederate officers–were willing to kill and abuse on a truly massive scale to disenfranchise black Republicans, something that a century later more (though by no means all!) white southerners had lost their stomach for. If we don’t remember their struggle and their sacrifice, we dishonor their memory. It was not their fault that they failed, but it is our fault if we forget.
Furthermore, the failure of Reconstruction reminds us that social or racial progress is not inevitable. It is a conceit of modernity to believe that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Since progress can be made, it can be unmade. Rolling back the advances of the civil rights movement or any other progressive social movement is as simple as exploiting the apathy of the current generation. If we only consume film and television that comforts us with progress already made, we are more likely to become apathetic about the necessity of fighting to maintain those rights.
If you’ve seen the film and are interested in learning more about the historical Free State of Jones, you should get a hold of Bynum’s book. The Smithonian also has an interesting article about the revolt as well as our memory of it.