By: Kevin Jordan
I love history.
I am a huge American Civil War buff. Everything about it fascinates me from the battles to the politics to the logistics to the economics to the before and after. I’ve read books, seen movies, watched documentaries, and visited many battlefields and memorials. I even own a Civil War chess set, though I’ve never taken part in a reenactment because that’s just crazy. After nearly three decades of digesting information, my interest hasn’t waned because I keep learning things about the time that I had never even heard of. Case in point – apprenticeship. Right after the War ended, southern states started passing laws known as Black Codes, including one called apprenticeship. Here’s the text from the Mississippi version:
“…It shall be the duty of all sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other civil officers of the several counties in this State, to report to the probate courts of their respective counties semiannually, at the January and July terms of said courts, all freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes, under the age of eighteen, in their respective counties, beats, or districts, who are orphans, or whose parent or parents have not the means or who refuse to provide for and support said minors; and thereupon it shall be the duty of said probate court to order the clerk of said court to apprentice said minors to some competent and suitable person on such terms as the court may direct, having a particular care to the interest of said minor: Provided, that the former owner of said minors shall have the preference when, in the opinion of the court, he or she shall be a suitable person for that purpose.
…In the management and control of said apprentice, said master or mistress shall have the power to inflict such moderate corporal chastisement as a father or guardian is allowed to inflict on his or her child or ward at common law: Provided, that in no case shall cruel or inhuman punishment be inflicted….”
What that says in layman’s terms is that black children could be taken from their parents and given to white families to work on their plantations as “apprentices,” as long as they provided very basic education and services to the children, under the guise and judgement of white “authorities.” These laws didn’t last long, legally speaking, as Congress invalidated the laws in 1866. My point is that I learned something from Free State of Jones and that wasn’t the only thing I learned.
The main thing to be learned from this film, historically speaking, is that a white Mississippi man named Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserted from the Confederate Army because he didn’t want to die for a rich man’s cotton, ended up gathering a few hundred people into an army that fought against the Confederates, and held a section of Mississippi during the latter part of the war. Given Hollywood’s proclivity for embellishing and spinning truth, we should all go read actual books about Knight and the events depicted in the film to get the truth of the details, but the basic story is indeed true, as are many of the details. From apprenticeships to the Confederate army stealing from its own people under the pretense of supporting the troops (not the rich Southern people, which is a major point of contention with the not rich Knight and his not rich neighbors) to granting voting rights to freedmen (freed slaves) to the beginnings of the Ku Klux Klan murdering freedmen who try to exercise those rights, it’s a history lesson in full living color that you probably never got, but badly need.
(Here’s a good place to start with your own research – http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-free-state-jones-180958111/?no-ist)
Which brings me to the other thing to be learned from this film (this is where I get on my soapbox for a moment) – we still have a long way to go with regards to not hating people simply because they are slightly different. It’s impossible to watch this movie and not see the parallels to our current political and societal atmosphere, which is toxic at best. A chunk of our population is still trying to deny others equal rights and status. A chunk of our population still thinks it’s okay to be racist, sexist, and act like assholes to other people. A chunk of our population continues to rationalize hatred like that for no reasons other than selfishness, unwarranted fear, and delusions of superiority. And it’s still happening because nearly all of our current political leaders (and I mean both major parties here) are spineless, corrupt, power-hungry individuals who forgot they work for all of us and not just the people that give them money. **Deep breath** This film reminds us that, as great as our country can be, we should never forget how horrendous we’ve been at times.
(Getting off soapbox now.)
The one major flaw with the movie is that it tries to intertwine a court case from 1948 involving the Knight family. Long story short – Mississippi wanted to invalidate a marriage between Davis Knight and a white woman because Davis’ lineage traces back to Newton and his second wife, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who was black (Mississippi initially won the case, but it was overturned on appeal and Davis was declared white. Yes, it’s as stupid as it sounds and, yes, that happened in America less than seventy years ago). Anyway, throughout the film, we catch glimpses of this trial and it does more harm to the flow of the movie than help. I get the point (eighty years later and the Knight family was still fighting deeply rooted racism), but it simply doesn’t work with the 1860’s portion of the film. All it really does it remove you from the main story every time you are just getting back into it. It almost felt tacked on in post-production rather than a fleshed out chunk of the narrative (an easy fix would have been to show us half the trial at the start of the movie, then the rest of the trial at the end so as not to disengage the viewer during the Newton night story).
The other noticeable issue with the movie is the amount of time spent after the war is over. The bulk of the movie focuses on the Jones’ folk fighting the Confederates, specifically Colonel Lowry (Wayne Père) and his regiment, over the course of three years. Once this conflict is resolved, the next ten years are crammed into the last twenty-five minutes or so of a 140-minute movie and the theme turns full tilt to equal black rights. That would have worked if the bulk of the film focused on black rights, but Newton’s initial fight is much more concerned with the treatment of non-rich people in general than the treatment of blacks.
Even with those two issues, the movie is quite good and doesn’t try to overdramatize the carnage of the war or murder of blacks for the sake of gratuity. It felt like a good balance of history and Hollywood drama and never loses sight of its main goal of teaching us some things we didn’t already know about that time. As I said in my review of Selma, this is the way history should be taught. If it doesn’t make you a little (or a lot) uncomfortable and cause you to rethink our current state, it’s not doing it right.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but do ask that this movie accompany Selma in our kids’ classrooms. It’s that important.