By Vikki Bynum
In a recent interview with historian Megan Kate Nelson for the Journal of the Society of Civil War Historians, Megan and I discussed my perspective on the upcoming movie, The Free State of Jones. Knowing that I had visited the movie set, she asked, “what was it like to experience the subjects and arguments in your book morphing into a visual format?” I responded that I was
impressed with the way in which class issues, front-line participation by women, and collaboration between deserters and slaves in this home front insurrection came to life on the screen. (Interview, Journal of Society of Civil War Historians, March 1, 2016)
Over the past year, this blog has featured several actors who play characters in the movie. Today, I want to focus on Mahershala Ali, who appears as Moses Washington, a runaway slave who joins forces with the Knight Company to fight against the Confederacy from the swamps of Mississippi. Moses, you may already have noticed, is not mentioned in any historical work about the Jones County uprising. That’s because his character was created by director Gary Ross, author of the movie’s original screenplay.
The creation of a fictional character for a movie based on a true story raises questions about truth and fact. Are they one and the same? Well, no, they aren’t, and, depending on whether we are reading a historical work, a novel, or watching a movie, truth and fact will interact differently with one another.
Megan and I discussed these differences. When she asked whether anything “worried” me about watching the movie come to fruition, I admitted that, “like most historians, I worried about the movie’s factual accuracy.” I went on to say that
Over time, my thinking has evolved on the creative differences between an academic work of history and a historically-based movie. Both rely on imagination, but in very different ways. Historians don’t merely assemble facts, apropos the cliché, “let the facts speak for themselves.” We must use imagination as well as intellect to assign the elusive truth of meaning to our work, or we risk producing little more than a footnoted list of facts.
In contrast to historians, Hollywood moviemakers use imagination to recreate a historic event that can be viewed within the space of 2-3 hours. The larger truth of an event is typically delivered without perfect adherence to facts—but rather with invented dialogue, composite characters and compressed events—to tell a true story that informs, inspires and entertains. My expectation is that the movie and my book will mutually reinforce the larger truth about the Free State of Jones. (Interview, Journal of Society of Civil War Historians, March 1, 2016)
The character of Moses Washington demonstrates the above distinctions. A movie, like a novel, may tell a true story through the actions of both factual and fictional characters. Is Moses factual? No. But his cinematic presence represents the fact that deserters and slaves collaborated during the Civil War, and assumes that Newt Knight himself likely crossed the color line beyond his factual relationship with the enslaved Rachel.
The evidence of such alliances appears sporadically in various wartime records and frequently in personal interviews conducted with ex-slaves by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the 1930s New Deal. As I noted in The Free State of Jones:
Many former slaves recalled their ties to deserters. Jeff Rayford described a scene on the Pearl River that could easily have occurred on the nearby Leaf River. “I cooked and carried many a pan of food to these men in Pearl River swamp,” remembered Rayford. One deserter became a regular customer, in fact. As the slave walked after dark along a path beside the swamp, the deserter “would step out from behind a tree and say: ‘Here Jeff,’ and I would hand it to him and run back to the house. (Bynum, Free State of Jones, p. 109)
Likewise, Creole slave Henri Necaise of Pass Christian told his WPA interviewer that he provided food
“to feed the womens and chilluns dat was fightin’ [on the home front]”, while their soldier husbands “was a runnin’ and hidin’.” (Bynum, Free State of Jones, p. 110)
Similar evidence exists throughout the South. As I observed in my first book, Unruly Women, underground trade networks flourished among nonslaveholding whites and people of color in North Carolina, particularly in the Piedmont region where fierce inner civil wars erupted between pro-Union and pro-Confederate forces:
Slaves and deserters funneled plantation goods to whites and free blacks, who then passed the goods on to others. White authorities sought in vain to halt illegal trafficking by arresting suspected whites or harassing free blacks who seemed too independent and “high-minded” for members of their race. (Bynum, Unruly Women, 123-124)
Deep-seated racial animosities between white citizens and people of color in the slaveholding South, as well as master class control over slaves (imperfect as it was during the war), rendered many such alliances tenuous and temporary. But not all of them—some were extensions of interracial relationships among slaves, free people of color, and poor whites that existed long before the eruption of the Civil War. These relationships continued into the war, dramatically reshaped by the ravages of war.
We still don’t know for certain that Newt Knight collaborated with a man like Moses Washington during the war, but we do know that Newt crossed the color line in his personal relationships, that he and his men traversed the rivers and swamps of Piney Woods Mississippi where escaped slaves also hid, and that he worked with Gov. Adelbert Ames and black politicians during Reconstruction. Most important, we know that men like Moses Washington made common cause with men like Newt Knight in the struggle to survive the Civil War and prevail over Confederate forces.
In the same spirit, I hope that the movie Free State of Jones will prevail over its Lost Cause predecessor, Gone With the Wind, in presenting this story of internal dissension. When Megan Kate Nelson asked me how I hoped the movie might shape Americans’ understanding of Civil War history, I answered without hesitation:
Most Americans know little to nothing about landowning, nonslaveholding white Southerners of the antebellum and Civil War South, which in turn prevents them from fully understanding the average Southerner’s experience of the Civil War. In bringing the story of the Free State of Jones to the masses, not only is the image of a white Solid South negated, so also is the agency of Southern dissenters during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction asserted. This represents an important shift in the general manner in which Hollywood has presented the Civil War. (Interview, Journal of the Society of Civil War Historians, March 1, 2016)
Who knows? In this instance, common cause between historians and Hollywood might just shake up the old paradigm of a Solid White South!
Categories: The Free State of Jones