The Free State of Jones

Guest Review of Movie “Free State of Jones” by Sherree Tannen

Matthew McConaughey as Newt Knight; Mahershala Ali as Moses Washington. From the movie Free State of Jones

Matthew McConaughey as Newt Knight; Mahershala Ali as Moses Washington. From the movie Free State of Jones

Why The Free State of Jones Is The Most Important Movie About The Civil War Since Glory


In 1989 when the movie Glory was released, most Americans did not realize that black soldiers fought in the Civil War. The Civil War was fought over slavery, the narrative went—unless you were a Lost Cause devotee—but it was nonetheless fought by white men. The United States Colored Troops did not figure prominently in the narrative, even though those troops were an integral part of the war effort and critical to the Union’s victory.  Glory changed all of that. There are very few people today who do not know that African American men fought in the Civil War to free their brethren. This narrative is now not only a part of African American identity; it is a part of our larger national identity as well. It took Hollywood to bring to life for the general public what historians and the African American community had long known.

Gary Ross’s The Free State of Jones has the potential to do the same. That is, it has the potential to redefine how we conceptualize the Civil War. Matthew McConaughey’s powerful portrayal of Newton Knight shatters the illusion that the Confederacy was monolithic and that all white men marched lock step into battle to defend the institution of slavery and their honor.  The class distinctions portrayed in the movie and the violence that those distinctions elicited were always present in the South and exponentially exacerbated by the coming of the war.  Indeed, class distinctions were imported to America long before the nation was formed. The “poor white” has been one version of the “other” throughout our history. He is the ignorant, illiterate stereotype devoid of humanity who plays whatever role in the national narrative that is assigned to him by those who control the narrative.

The narrative that erased Newt Knight’s history was that of the Lost Cause. To white southerners invested in that narrative, Newt was nothing more than a deserter, traitor, criminal, and lover of the “other” race. To those outside of the South, he simply disappeared and never existed. It is not surprising that the movie’s director created a website that documents that this story is based upon fact.  For many, the story would have been impossible to believe without documentation. Such is the power, still, of the Lost Cause narrative.

Newton Knight can neither be reduced to a stereotype nor lost in a narrative. He is too large. He is larger than life. Yet he is not a hero. He is a man. He is a man living in an unforgiving land and climate where violence reigns supreme and is even necessary, at times, in order to survive.

McConaughey’s portrayal of Newt Knight is brilliant. The murder scenes portraying soldiers and dogs are horrific, yet realistic, and Newt becomes as violent in opposition as his enemies. The feared loss of control present in Newt’s eyes reflects the violent land that produced him—a land in which alligators and snakes and soldiers may kill you and drown you in the swamp unless you kill them first.

Newt’s religion is likewise harsh and unforgiving. God is absent, yet necessary. God will bring an end to suffering . . . . maybe. Still, the dead must be buried; prayers must be said. There is brutal order in these rituals.

Newt’s relationship with Rachel brings out the best in him. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s unflinching and understated grace as Rachel Knight is the counterpoint to McConaughey’s raw performance. What Newt has suffered, Rachel has suffered tenfold. Rachel rarely speaks of her suffering, yet it permeates the narrative in wordless condemnation of the world into which both she and Newt were born. What white man, poor or not, knows the South like Rachel knows it?  Not one. McConaughey’s Newton Knight seems to understand this. Whether or not the real Newt did is debatable.  Newt provides for Rachel, and he also provides for Serena. In his patriarchal world, that makes him a good man.

Mahershala Ali’s performance speaks for itself. There was audible weeping in the theater down here in the swamp where I saw the movie when Newt finds Moses’s body—weeping followed by a palpable anger.

In sum, The Free State of Jones captures the essence of a forgotten history and humanizes the people who lived it. If there is a shortcoming to the movie, the responsibility lies with our collective loss of memory, not with the director. Gary Ross delivers a movie with a profound message and a stellar cast of actors.  His story only becomes stilted and didactic when he abandons artistry and uses subtitles and photographs to make clearer its historical context. In other words, Ross must teach us our history before he can deliver his story.  This preemptive strike on the director’s part—especially in the flash forward scenes that should have been left on the editing floor—breaks the narrative flow, though not enough to keep the movie from achieving its goal: to masterfully tell a mostly unknown history and create a watershed film destined to enter our national memory and forever change how we view the Civil War.

—Sherree Tannen


8 replies »

  1. About Sherree Tannen’s review of ‘Free State of Jones’….In my opinion, I don’t think it’s possible that anyone living on planet earth could have penned a more interesting review. WOW! When it comes to reviews of both books and movies, I usually scan over said material in quick order. NOT so with this review. A history lesson within a history lesson. Not being a wordsmith, I’ll unsure that I will be able to do justice to Ms. Tannen’s commentary regarding both the movie and the true history of the Confederate South…Perhaps, it’s best to merely say “Wow” again…and sign off. Oh, one more thing, having seen the Movie, I agree wholeheartedly with this review…

    Wait……………….No mention of the absence of Dr G and the MudCats swampy tonk music ‘Jones County Jubilee’…Somehow Gary Ross flubbed up by this omission…

    The other Vikky in San Diego….(Vikky Wilburn Anders)

    Proud descendant of the best moonshiners in KY…



    • Thank you, Vikki Anders! Free State of Jones is an incredible film. I think that in time Newt Knight will become an archetype of sorts. The bringing of this history to the big screen has given voice to a forgotten history.

      Your point about Dr. G and The MudCats is well taken. The song “Jones County Jubilee” captures the feel of the swamp for certain.


    • H. Jowsey,

      I read the review and agree with a lot of the analysis. I think we need to be careful, however, and not turn the discussion into one of class vs race in the process of analyzing others who are doing just that.

      Having worked with African American, Hispanic, and white children ages five to eighteen in the rural South, I can tell you firsthand that poverty is colorblind in its brutal crushing of hopes and dreams. I challenge anyone to look into the face of a five year old child and tell him or her that he or she deserves to be poor.

      Yet, black poverty is different. Hispanic poverty is different. Poverty doubles down when it comes to race. I don’t think we should lose sight of that.


  2. Brilliant review, Sherree! You capture precisely why “Free State of Jones” is not only good entertainment but an important event in American culture. I would only add that folks like the Knight Company were done in not only by Lost Causers, but perhaps even more shamefully by Northern Unionists who preferred to portray themselves as single-handedly defeating treason and slavery. This narrative left little room for sharing credit with Black Southern Unionists, and even less for poor Southern White ones. Lets hope, like other prejudices exposed in the book and movie, this one is not echoed today.


    • Sean,

      Thank you for your kind words and for your added perspective. The history explored in “Free State of Jones” is, indeed, complex, and warrants even further exploration.

      Ross has simultaneously shattered several myths about the Civil War and delivered a profoundly moving narrative. As I stated in the review, the only artistic shortcoming of the film lies with the disjointed nature of parts of the narrative when it becomes imperative for Ross to teach us this lost part of our history before he can tell his story. I read one review in which the reviewer mused that the relationship between Newt and Rachel was created by the director in order to further the plot! This comment reveals how we truly have lost this part of our history. Newton and Rachel Knight are historical figures: they existed. To some, this fact is simply inconceivable. Ross’s “Free State of Jones”– and Dr. Bynum’s decades of research–help us to reclaim this vital part of our past. Five stars for that and for so much more when it comes to this film. I think that your observation that “Free State of Jones” will be considered a classic film in time is accurate.


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