By Vikki Bynum
Between November 19–22, 2015, the Smithsonian Institute and National Endowment for the Humanities will host a history film forum at the National Museum of American History in Washington DC. The forum will include a panel discussion of the forthcoming movie, The Free State of Jones.
According to Executive Director and forum curator Christopher Wilson, “by looking at several brand new films that illuminate the Secrets of American History, we will consider the issues that arise when true stories of the past become the subject of our on-screen entertainment.” To this end, on November 21, distinguished historians David Blight and Steven Hahn will join Gary Ross, the movie’s director and screenplay author, to discuss the challenges of bringing The Free State of Jones to the Big Screen.
The forum will also address the ways in which “films reflect the social, political, and cultural concerns of the times in which they were made,” which speaks to the question posed on Twitter by Kevin Levin of Civil War Memory: “What has changed in our Civil War memory to make room for just such a movie?”
Good question. Given that tales about the Free State of Jones have been around since before the Civil War ended, why wasn’t a movie about these plain white farmers of Civil War Mississippi who armed themselves and fought against the Confederacy made before now?
That’s right, in 1948 Hollywood produced a fictional version of the Free State of Jones—with disappointing results. In my October 20, 2015 review of Universal Studio’s adaptation of James Street’s novel Tap Roots, I described a muddled story about Southern Unionism—one loosely based, like Street’s novel, on the Knights of Jones County, Mississippi. Unlike the novel, however, that movie portrayed the stubborn, haughty, and wealthy Dabneys as opposing the Confederacy primarily to keep order in “their” beloved valley.
The movie Tap Roots revealed that Hollywood was utterly uninterested in telling the true story of Jones County’s uprising and the interracial family it produced. Mostly, the movie aped the affectations of the most successful movie of its time, Gone with the Wind (1939). Actress Susan Hayward strove to recreate Scarlett O’Hara right down to Scarlett’s unrequited love for a stuffy Confederate officer and her “fiddle de dee” outbursts at whomever dared thwart her headstrong desires. A clone of GWTW’s “Mammy” even appeared. With Lost Cause visions dancing in their head, it seemed that Hollywood producers had no clue in 1948 about what to do with a “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.”
Born in 1947, I grew up amid the conflicts and changes that enabled a very different version of the Free State of Jones to be filmed in 2015, beginning with the segregated grade schools I attended between 1953 and 1958 when my family lived in Tampa, Florida. How well I remember the day a friend’s mother warned me (I was eight years old) that I was going to have to attend school with “coloreds” thanks to some “new law” that had been passed. Until my family moved from Florida to California in 1958, however, the only black student I ever encountered was the little girl who rode the same bus as I did to our summer school swimming class.
All hell broke loose following the Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision of 1954—hence the warning issued to me by my friend’s mother. By the early 1960s, my generation regularly viewed violent confrontations between segregationists and civil rights activists on living room TV sets. A true product of the sixties, when I finally entered college in 1974, my dominant academic interest was societal conflict. I soon became a history major.
I discovered that historians often respond to the burning questions of their times by studying the past. Just as the Great Depression of the 1930s raised questions about the origins of economic inequality, the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s stimulated studies about slavery and racial inequality. During the 1960s, the Vietnam War spurred interest in the origins of the “Military-Industrial Complex” identified by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1961. Finally, before the close of this volatile decade, a vibrant “women’s liberation” movement emerged that fueled academic research on women, eventually producing yet another field of history.
By the time I got to college, historians had also driven the Lost Cause version of the Civil War back on its heels. Until this happened (beginning in the 1930s), the history of slavery, lynching, and segregation—as well as that of Southern white Unionists—remained buried beneath the mists of stately, benevolent white plantation masters, gracious white mistresses, and the happy, singing slaves—or “servants,”—who loved them. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Confederate sympathizers rewrote the Civil War as a “noble cause” fought by Southerners to protect states’ rights—a cause they claimed had little or nothing to do with slavery. Indeed, this “War Between the States” revealed an allegedly “Solid South” in which only the most “degraded” poor whites and “savage” blacks opposed the Confederacy.
As I wrote in the new Afterword to the forthcoming Movie Edition of The Free State of Jones:
The Free State of Jones challenges the very core of this Lost Cause history, bringing to life white landowning, non-slaveholding families who acted aggressively in their own interests—interests that did not coincide with those of slaveholders. Dismissed by their pro-Confederate detractors as treasonous poor whites, outlaws, and cowards, the men and women who supported Jones County’s Civil War insurrection in fact comprise a “heritage” that Confederate flags, monuments, and movies have long obscured. (Bynum, Free State of Jones, p. 196)
Without the social and political changes of the 1950s and 1960s and the corresponding new works of academic history, the story of the Free State of Jones would likely never have become a major Hollywood production. Still, despite these changes, it is all too obvious that the Myth of the Lost Cause is alive and well, its tenets regularly expressed in current references to “heritage” and “states’ rights” that reappear over and over in longstanding disputes over the Confederate flag.
Sadly, academic defeat of pernicious myths of “history” does not assure their cultural defeat. Enter Hollywood. If political movements and academic historians have changed our sense of historical truth, perhaps the forthcoming movie, The Free State of Jones, can likewise expand our popular understanding of the myriad ways in which ordinary folks experienced the Civil War. One can only hope.
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