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.
Categories: The Free State of Jones