Among the films removed from Netflix on October 1st was The Free State of Jones. This is a Civil War era biopic staring Matthew McConaughey as Mississippi farmer, soldier, deserter, and counter-rebel Newton Knight. It’s a film that has its heart in the right place but just doesn’t seem to make it across the finish line.
Knight joined the the Confederate army in 1861 and served into the fall of 1862. Sometime in October or earlier, he deserted the army, likely for a combination of personal and political reasons. The film shows that a major factor is the passage of the law which allowed one white male to be exempt from military service for every twenty slaves owned by his family. Particularly coinciding with the hardship borne by Southern soldiers at the Siege of Corinth (where Knight was fighting), the idea that the poor must fight on while the rich returned home sat poorly with many.
The film shows Knight fleeing into swampland and living with fugitive slaves to avoid being hung for desertion. As Confederate defeats in battle began to accumulate, more and more deserters joined his band. From late 1963 through the end of the war, Knight’s “company” fought engagements against Confederate forces and, for a time, exerted control over several counties in Mississippi (Jones is a agrarian county centered in the southern half of the state and was where Knight was born).
The film failed to live up to its potential on several counts. Most obviously, it made back only roughly half of the money put into it. It received mixed reviews from the critics. It’s not to say it was a bad film, but it just didn’t manage to pull it all together.
I suspect its trouble was trying to be too many things at once. It begins by showing the horror of war. It is possible that the director/screenwriter included this phase of the movie to establish sympathy for his protagonist. Nobody likes a coward and a deserter, so we’re shown that he had plenty of cause to turn his back on this war. It may also be that he wanted to portray, among his many themes, that war is all hell.
The film definitely takes its liberties with history and doesn’t try to hide it. The details of Knights life and, particular, of the Jones County rebellion are sparsely documented. At least some of the written histories are written to emphasize how Knight was a traitor to the Confederacy. Imagining the details is an absolutely necessary part of telling this story. The various aspects of Knight’s opposition to the Confederacy also all have bases. The racial aspects of the film derive from Knight’s religious convictions about the divine origins of man; although he lived in the deep south, he truly opposed slavery.
As Knight’s “succession” takes form, the film shifts from the detailed ugliness of the battlefields to a more abstract depiction. We’re shown that Knight asks for support from Sherman’s force but receives much less than he asks for or, apparently, needs. Furthermore, it is without context. Did the counter-rebellion in Jones County impact the course of the war? The movie doesn’t say. With the war over, the film goes on to de-emphasize the “war story” angle and set us up for the “third act,” the reconstruction era in the south. The film shows Knight and area black leaders engaged in in post-war political efforts while also dealing with the Klu Klux Klan. This is put into context with some narrative about the Federal program of reconstruction.
One last story arc is interspersed with Knight’s lifetime, involving his great-grandson. Some other, probably unknown, relative of the family figured out that at least one of Newton Knight’s children had a black mother and reported Davis Knight’s recent marriage as interracial and therefore in violation of the law. The film inter-cuts between Civil War times and the courtroom drama of the miscegenation trial, which took place in 1948. This tops off that lack of focus that, to my mind, sunk the film. The point, I must assume, is to show that the racial inequality that was supposed to have been put to rest by the Confederacy’s defeat in the Civil War continued through 1948-53 (it took five years for Davis Knight’s conviction to be overturned by Mississippi Supreme Court). As we know it would continue through the 1960s and beyond. Not until 1967 did the U.S. Supreme Court declare, in Loving v. Virginia, that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.
The story of Newton Knight and his fight to leave the Confederacy is a worthy one. In fact, it was the subject of the 1948* film Tap Roots. Reconstruction and, particularly, the extent of its failures is also a worthy subject, and Knight’s participation in this may have been even more significant that his wartime fighting. The terrifying persistence of racism also is an important theme. This film stumbles trying to show all these things at once. This was not a terrible film; it was OK. But a big-budget production probably has to be a little better than OK to earn its keep.
*I note the coincidence of the film release and the miscegenation case. I suspect that they are related; the light that film shown on the Knight family name may well have triggered the digging up of dirt on the current generation of Knights.