By Vikki Bynum
Below are links to recent reviews, articles, and interviews about the movie, The Free State of Jones, followed by photographs from the movie’s Hollywood premiere on June 21, 2016.
Jennifer Schuessler examines unusual aspects of The Free State of Jones in New York Times:
- Mick LaSalle review in San Francisco Chronicle
- Richard Brody review in The New Yorker
- Victoria Bynum on Hollywood, the Lost Cause, and The Free State of Jones, Zocalo Public Square:
- A.O. Scott review in New York Times
- Rebecca Onion review in Slate Magazine
- Christopher McWhirter review in Civil War Pop
- Kevin Levin review in The Daily Beast
- Matt Hulbert review in Civil War Monitor
- David Walsh of Socialist World Website reviews Charles Blow’s review of Free State of Jones
- Megan Kate Nelson review in Historista
- Adam Domby review in The Post and Courier
- J. R. Jones review in Chicago Reader
- Jason Dawsey letter to Knoxville News Sentinel
- Matt Stanley review for Organization of American Historians (OAH)
- Mark Lause review in The Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA)
- Nina Silber review for “Process,” Organization of American Historians (OAH)
- Jarret Ruminski review in That Devil History
Snapshots from Free State of Jones premiere, Directors’ Guild Theater in Los Angeles
Some historical perspective: Victoria Bynum, 2015 interview with Marshall Ramsey on “Conversations,” Mississippi Public Broadcasting:
Categories: The Free State of Jones
Enjoyed watching “The Free State of Jones” today. I recently read your article from 2009 about John M. Baylis, who was the brother of my great-great-great grandfather William Baylis. It was interesting to find out about the connection to Newton Knight. I grew up in South Mississippi and remember people talking about the Free State of Jones but not knowing a lot about it. Thanks for uncovering the history. I have also heard stories about Winston County in Alabama doing a similar thing during the Civil War. I will get your book soon and read it as well.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for your comment, Robert. Yes, the Free State of Winston was a similar uprising in Alabama. In fact there were similar uprisings through the South. the North Carolina Piedmont, which I’ve written about extensively, was another example; so was the infamous Shelton Laurel Massacre. Most recently, I’ve published an article about the uprising in the Big Thicket of East Texas.
Many other historians have written about such uprisings–Margaret Storey, David Williams, Philip Paludan, Stephanie McCurry to name just a few. It’s such important history, all of them. Hope you enjoy the book.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hi, Ms. Bynum,
My wife and I watched The Free State of Jones today and enjoyed it. Growing up in Mississippi (Bay Springs, then later Petal), I had heard of the “Free State of Jones,” but not much was said, and some of what was said was contradictory. My Ohio-raised wife had never heard the story at all, and thought that the South was monolithic in favoring slavery and secession from the Union.
Newton Knight was a Primitive Baptist, though, and some of the scenes in the movies depicted him as drinking alcohol. Is there any evidence that he drank alcohol, or was this “artistic license”?
Thank you for your comments and questions regarding the Free State of Jones. I’m glad that you and your wife enjoyed the movie, and I love that it dispels the long-held myth of a “solid” white South.
In regard to the movie’s portrayal of Newt Knight, I’ve heard several researchers likewise claim that Newt was a Primitive Baptist, but I’ve never seen proof of this. I know that Newt’s son, Tom Knight, claimed in his biography of his father that Newt joined a Primitive Baptist church in 1885 or 1886. Well, Tom Knight got many facts wrong in that book, but perhaps this statement is true. Even if it is, 1885 is twenty years after the end of the Civil War. Not only that, but in 1883, a local newspaper reported that Newt Knight had joined the Mormon Church.
In regard to liquor, Newt himself remarked in his famous 1921 interview that he did not allow his men to drink during dangerous missions. Even Ethel Knight, Newt’s harshest critic, remarked that Newt was not a drinking man. And so, like you, I was surprised by the scene in which Newt passed a bottle of whiskey to his men just before they embarked on a raid for corn. It just doesn’t sound like the Newt Knight we see in the historical records.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thanks for your reply, Ms. Bynum. I’m glad I’m not the only one who saw that scene as jarring. If there is any truth to the claim in the newspaper report that Newt Knight joined the Mormon Church, that could also explain the abstention from alcohol. Might it also explain his willingness to have Serena and Rachel concurrently as wives? (Serena legally and Rachel by cohabitation)
The likelihood that Newt did briefly join the Mormon Church is supported by definite proof that Rachel did. She allegedly did not like the cold climate of Utah and soon left. (Update: a local Mississippi newspaper reported in 1883 that Newt Knight had joined the Mormon Church.) Several former members of the Knight band, including one of Newt’s brothers, also became Mormons. It’s an intriguing thought that perhaps the Mormon tradition of multiple wives further attracted Newt to this church.
In his one extant letter, written in 1887, Newt refers to all the missionaries in the area rather dismissively. This was near the time that George Ann’s daughter, the distinguished missionary, Anna Knight, became interested in Seventh Day Adventism. It would also have been around the time that Tom Knight claimed that Newt joined a Primitive Baptist church. Maybe so; nothing in the letter indicates religious views one way or the other. Nor did Newt display any particular religious fervor in his 1921 interview with Meigs Frost.
LikeLiked by 2 people
I’m surprised to read that many reviewers, including Christopher McWhirter, see the movie as dry and awkward. I admit that I’m a history nerd who got hooked on the Civil War in 4th Grade, but the movie – which I saw yesterday – consistently engaged me emotionally as well as intellectually. The battlefield death of Newt’s nephew brought me to tears, and the discovery of Moses’ lynching evoked the sense memory of kissing the foot of the Cross on Good Friday. I was also surprised by the sensitivity with which the film depicted the complex family life that the Knights developed; what in the book often came off as a tangled tree graph came into focus as an organic reality.
I’ll grant that the inclusion of the Davis Knight trial was one ball too many to juggle, and the use of period photos and headlines could have used the finesse that Ken Burns brought to their use in documentary film-making. Even so, these flaws hardly ruined what for me was a powerful movie, and should not for any audience who wants more out of a movie than an amusement park ride or music video.
May the Southern Unionists rise again!
Well said, Sean. I too found many parts of the story quite moving.
Watched last night…before it began I had to restrain myself from standing up and asking how many Collins’, Bynum’s or Knight’s were in the theater!!! We viewed it in Beaumont, Texas just within miles south of Hardin County. I am the Great Great Granddaughter of Simeon and Lydia Bynum Collins, Great Granddaughter of Harrison Collins. I loved the movie and expect to go and see it again. I have found several Collins cousins who live in Jasper County, Texas and we had planned to go together. As I left the movie, I had 2 private messages stating 2 more cousins form the Simeon and Lydia down line…I’m very excited about all the connections. One thing I have not seen is the burial place of Simeon Collins. I have been to the Polk county cemeteries and seen many ancestors and put the photos on my Ancestry tree to allow others to save to their trees.
Re: “Newton Knight was a Primitive Baptist…drinking alcohol…”
If this thread is going to be a “Would the real person say/do what the character said/did?” contest, my pick is the line “I guess he’s a whole new thing in the world!” By most accounts, Rachael Knight was herself racially mixed, but even if those who said otherwise at the Davis Knight trial were correct, the real Rachel had already borne children by White men (albeit less willingly) before she met Newt (a plot complication that I don’t blame the movie for avoiding).
I’d sooner expect to find alcohol on Newton’s lips than those words on Rachael’s!
Thanks, Sean, for the reminder that we are watching a movie, not a documentary. As a historian, I’m always ready to discuss what’s likely and unlikely to be factual, but the job of a historically-based movie is to tell a great story without sacrificing its essential truth, and this one succeeds in that goal. So let’s give a toast to Newt and the boys!
I read your book last week, and saw the film yesterday. I thought the film was a bit long & tedious at times, but good overall. I was glad I read your book first. One comment on the Davis Knight trial – the focus in the film seemed to be on who was Davis’ great-grandma – Serena or Rachel. In the book, the focus was on Rachel’s race, and thus whether or not Davis was 1/8th or more African-American. I wonder, why the distinction between the two versions of the story?
As a descendant of both Southern Unionists & Confederates, it is good to see the former finally getting their due. As I told my friends who joined me at the movie & for supper after, many people do not recognize that about 100,000 white Southerners from the 11officially-seceded states fought for the Union. I recommended your book, along with Lincoln’s Loyalists, The South vs. The South, and Victims, a story about the Shelton Laurel & NC Unionism, for further reading on the subject.
Lastly, I noticed in your book you mention Hannibal, MO. I am just down the road in Mexico, MO, and serve on the board of the Audrain County Historical Society. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood.
Vikki, I can’t thank you enough for your book…resulting in the movie…which I found absolutely incredible…and this blog. You have made a part of my past come alive. I will be forever grateful for what you have given me. Chuck
Thank you so much, Chuck! I’m delighted that you enjoyed the movie, and pleased about whatever role I played in making the past come alive. Hope to hear from you again soon.
I’ve seen the movie twice now and I love it. The first time it was disconcerting any time there was a variation from your book. But, then again, if the director had tried to do the whole story faithfully, a mini-series wouldn’t have been long enough.
Bravo to you and the filmmakers and the actors Matthew McConaughey, Mahershala Ali, Gugu Mbatha-Raw even Keri Russell in her small role (I was glad they didn’t make her a shrew, just a terrified woman trying to protect her child) was wonderful.
Thank you, Kerry!
Disgusted but by no means totally surprised at the negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. As a member of New York Film Critics Online, this film is my choice for best of 2016.
I read a review of FSOJ at CNN by Lisa Woolfork, professor at UVA, titled “What ‘The Free State of Jones’ Says About Whiteness”. It is excellent and goes to the heart of the matter, using as a focal point of analysis James Baldwin’s famous challenge to white America to ask itself why it needed to degrade a black man and the black race in order to define itself.
We might ask ourselves the same thing about Newt Knight–not to mention Rachel Knight. What is it about this story that is so threatening to some? Why does Newt need to remain a degraded poor white? Why is Rachel denied agency in her choice to remain with this man until her death? What purpose does this serve, what function, in our collective imagination?
Here is the link:
Thanks, Sherree! yes, I like this review very much—going to add to my blog about reviews if I ever get the chance to catch up–this movie is keeping me busy!
OK, I am going to apologize now as it seems my opinion is not going to be popular. I saw the movie today. I was so disappointed! I do not feel it did your book justice. What I loved about your book was it was just the facts. The movie include fictitious characters and presents Newt, Serena and Rachel’s children completely incorrectly. But, at least the acting was good.
I appreciate your comment. I too have often wished that historic movies stayed closer to the facts. I learned a lot, however, from watching the free State of Jones movie develop.
First of all, the movie is not based on my book, though it clearly drew on my research. More important, an academic book like mine fulfills a very task than does a movie. An academic historian is not expected to deliver an entertaining, self-contained story. if we do, fine; but our primary task is to uncover the facts of a story or event, and analyze its causes and effects within its historical context.
For the very reason that you loved my book (and I’m so grateful for your good words!), others have bought it after seeing the movie, and hated it—precisely because it doesn’t tell an entertaining action-packed story about an unabashed hero.
I’m really pleased with the movie—it entertains as well as delivers an important historical truth—but I’m equally delighted that there are people like you who still enjoy reading an in-depth, analytical treatment of important historical events and the people who made them so. Thank you!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Hello Ms. Bynum, I have seen the movie at least ten times and read your book, both are oustanding!! After seeing the trailer for first time a couple of months ago, I began to do as much learning as possible about Newton Knight. My question for you is, why do you think Gary Ross changed so many things ie. The Mclemore killing, Rachel not being his grandfather’s slave, his nephew dying in the war? I know it’s not suppose to be a documentary but I feel like Newt’s story is very interesting and didn’t need to be “Hollywooded up”.
I’m glad that you liked both the movie and my book! I’ll attempt to answer a few of your questions:
1) Because of time constraints on a movie, Gary Ross created several composite characters. Col. Elias Hood, the man you identify as Major McLemore, was actually a combination of several officers who led raids on Jones County deserters. Originally, he was named McLemore, but Ross soon realized he needed to change the name. And so, in the character Elias, you had an officer who hanged several members of the Knight Band (as did Cols Maury and Lowry, but not Major McLemore), but who also was killed by Newt Knight, (as was McLemore, but under different circumstances than those portrayed in the movie).
2) The movie had to limit how much of this multi-faceted, complex story it could include in a 2+ hour movie. If the screenplay would have included Rachel’s origins, it would have to include her having been willed to Jackie Knight’s son, Jesse, by whom she had several children while still the slave of his father. That meant it would have had to deal with Newt’s relationship with this uncle. Not only do we not know many of the facts of Jesse and Newt’s relationship, much less those surrounding Jesse and Rachel, Rachel’s life before Newt would have necessitated a movie in its own right, one that would have included sexual exploitation, rape, and the conditions of motherhood for enslaved women. This is an important story that needs to be told, but not alongside one about Civil War insurrection and the counter-revolution against Reconstruction that followed the war. There was not time for all three. A director must make choices. While Ross did not ignore the history of Rachel as an exploited and enslaved woman, his major story—also extremely important—was that of the insurrection and counter-revolution.
3) The story of Daniel is another composite story. When I conducted my research, I was struck by the number of Jones County soldiers who ended up in the Confederate hospital at Enterprise, MS. Many who did not die on the Corinth battlefield died in that hospital. Those deaths, along with the Twenty-Negro Law, stimulated a good many desertions among Jones County men following the battle of Corinth. Many of the men were kin to one another—brothers and cousins who joined the 7th Battalion Mississippi Infantry together, and then fought together in Corinth. So I found that “imagined” scene of Newt and Daniel very believable if not literally true. It would have been an experience that a number of Jones County man had, including possibly Newt.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions, you are a Newt Knight scholar for sure!! I guess I wasn’t aware that he had changed Maj McLemore into a composite character with a different name that makes sense now. Rachel’s back story would be a great story to tell I’m sure. Do think there’s enough information available for a book and would you be interested in writing it?
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks, James! I have no plans to write more books about Newt, Rachel, and the Free State of Jones. My 2010 book, Long Shadow of the Civil War, contains four chapters about the Knights and Collinses of Jones County that expand upon my Free State of Jones book.
Beyond the books and articles I’ve written, I try to keep current with new research right here on Renegade South.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for your responses! I will check that book out. One more question. I have read where people call Newt a socialist. Seems to me it’s not that Newt was aginst the wealthy, just aginst people gaining wealth off of slavery. It’s well documented that Newt fought for people so they could keep what was theirs. That too me is the exact opposite of a socialist. With you being the most educated on Newt, what is your opinion?
I have never seen evidence that Newt Knight became a Socialist, in part because he left politics before there was a Socialist Party in Mississippi. After the war, Newt joined the Republican party and served in the administration of Adelbert Ames during the period known as “Radical Reconstruction.” His Knight Band partner, Jasper Collins, became a leader of the Populist Party that emerged during the 1890s. Several of Jasper’s kinfolk ran for local office on a Socialist ticket in 1913. Jasper’s brother, Warren J. Collins of Texas, also a Civil War Unionist, ran for office as a Socialist in Texas between 1910-1912.
Just as Southern Unionists believed that wealthy slaveholders had foisted the Civil War on ordinary families in order to protect their wealth in slaves, so too did Populists and Socialists believe that commercial land use (especially by lumbering companies in the LA, MS, and TX piney woods) robbed the people of their lands and their wages. Each of these parties advocated governments that would serve the common people rather than capitalists by redistributing wealth fairly and equitably.
As for Newt, around 1892 he told an interviewer that he believed the non-slaveholding farmers should have risen up and overthrown the slaveholders rather than fight their war for them. Newt did not hold office after 1880; with an openly-mixed-race family, he would not likely have been elected in Jim Crow Mississippi. But if he could have, it would not have surprised me to see him join either the Populist or Socialist movements.
That is just my opinion, and by no means do I consider myself the most educated person on Newt Knight, though I have spent a good many years studying him.
LikeLiked by 1 person