News Flash: As I was putting the final touches on the following report, I learned that the American Historical Association has awarded the movie The Free State of Jones the John E. O’Connor Award for “outstanding interpretation of history through the medium of film or video.” The award underscores historians’ appreciation of the movie’s refutation of the Lost Cause version of Civil War history! Congratulations to director/screenwriter Gary Ross and STX Entertainment for this important achievement.
I’m just back from Blacksburg, Virginia, where I attended a screening of the movie The Free State of Jones at the historic downtown Lyric Theatre. The movie, its showing sponsored by the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech, continues to stimulate interest in both the facts and the historical context of Jones County’s rebellion against the Confederacy.
Following the movie, I discussed Hollywood director and screenwriter Gary Ross’s cinematic refutation of the Lost Cause version of the Civil War and Reconstruction that has long dominated popular culture (and Hollywood in particular). Drawing on my years of research and publications on the Free State of Jones, I noted the cultural and kin-based origins of Jones County’s yeoman class uprising, and the uprising’s striking similarity to numerous other “inner civil wars” that raged throughout the Civil War South. Historically, I emphasized, the Free State of Jones is testimony to the importance of class dissent, interracial collaboration, and pockets of fierce support for the Union throughout the Civil War.
Until recently, the memories and heritage of Southern Unionists were largely buried, and quite deliberately so. The process of denying the significance of Southern white anti-Confederate sentiment came in the aftermath of the violent, Ku Klux Klan-assisted overthrow of Reconstruction during the 1870s. The rewriting of history to suit Lost Cause principles paralleled the early twentieth-century mania for erecting monuments to celebrate the victory of white supremacy and segregation that followed on the heels of this counterrevolution.
Then came the film, Birth of a Nation (1915)—a cinematic celebration of the Lost Cause, the Klan, segregation, and lynching. The story of Newt Knight, Rachel Knight, and all the men, women, and slaves who supported the Union from Mississippi became a story of shame for many Jones County descendants.
To demonstrate how embedded Lost Cause images became over time, I presented key movie stills from Birth of a Nation (1915), Gone With the Wind (1939), and Tap Roots (1948). All three movies bowed to the myth of a Confederacy formed to protect Constitutional principles and honor—not slavery—and provided visual testimony to its permeation of twentieth-century popular culture. Playing especially to the sentiments and emotions of Confederate descendants, these movies perpetuated stereotypes of benevolent plantation masters and gentle mistresses, dangerous black men, loyal mammies, and degraded poor whites (i.e., white Unionists ).
Here’s hoping that The Free State of Jones encourages future movie makers to continue drawing on the expertise of professional historians when attempting to recreate the Civil War past.
Post Script: Just before the movie began, I was delighted to meet in person a longtime friend, Sherree Tannen. Sherree has participated in many discussions on this blog—has written two guest posts for it—but I had never met her in person, nor did she warn me she was coming to Blacksburg, so this was a real treat!