Review: Class war and the Confederacy in "Free State of Jones"

Still from "Free State of Jones." Courtesy STX Entertainment.

Free State of Jones may be the most politically important film about the Civil War and its aftermath to appear in a quarter century. Produced by Gary Ross, Free State of Jones stars Mathew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a Confederate deserter who leads a rebellion against the planter class in Southeastern Mississippi, momentarily uniting yeoman farmers and runaway slaves in an autonomous republic, the Free State of Jones County. This film does for Southern white small farmers what the 1989 film Glory did for enslaved and free blacks – it provides a textured portrait of their political lives that avoids the crude caricatures we have come to expect.

The film distills Victoria Bynum’s superb history of the legendary Knight Company, Newton Knight’s marriage to former slave and co-conspirator, Rachel, and the interracial community they created, the “White Negroes” of the Piney Woods. The film’s narrative oscillates between the Knight Company’s exploits during the Civil War and the tragedy of post-war Reconstruction and, on the other hand, the 1948 criminal trial of Davis Knight, the great-grandson of Rachel and Newton, who was charged with violating Mississippi’s ban on miscegenation after he married a white woman, Lee Spradley. In dramatic detail, the film reveals the class war underneath the Civil War, a dimension largely erased by the dominant lore of the Confederate “Lost Cause” that continues to shape Southern and national politics. In contrast to the prevailing view among so many nowadays that racism has always been and continues to be the main barrier to any progressive left politics, Free State of Jones reminds us of a more complex history, where anti-slavery politics, Radical Republicanism and mass action created the short-lived progress of Reconstruction.

In his classic 1935 book, Black Reconstruction, W.E.B. DuBois characterizes the work stoppages and eventual mass exodus of enslaved blacks from plantations after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation as a general strike. Against the conservative Dunning school of Reconstruction historiography, DuBois illuminates the role that blacks played in winning the war and creating the conditions for federal Reconstruction. Free State of Jones renders part of this history, and conveys a sense of an even broader strike in the process. As slaves put down the hoe and scythe, filling the Union camps as contraband, increasing numbers of Confederate deserters fled into the hollows and swamps, and some switched sides, further weakening the capacity of the landlords to defend their interests.

In his excellent review of the film, historian Mark Lause reminds us that such desertions were not so much exceptions but the rule. The general fact of Confederate desertion, together with the Piney Woods rebellion depicted in the film, challenges the myth of the pro-slavery "Solid South." It should also trouble those who still cling to the Confederate Battle Flag and racist nostalgia for a mythical antebellum life that benefited all whites equally. This film depicts the saga of war and Reconstruction, the personal dalliance and political communion of slaves and yeoman, freedpersons, and reformers during this auspicious period with an adroit touch that few commercial American films have attempted.

Not Another “White Savior” Movie

The reaction to Free State of Jones was in some corners harsh and unforgiving – but as we shall see most of these critiques not only miss the point but actively undermine the real importance of the film. We can draw out that real importance by considering some of their arguments, starting with New York Times columnist Charles Blow, who concludes that “there are also tired flashes of the Tarzan narrative: a white man who, dropped into a jungle, masters it better than the natives.” Blow is disappointed that “there is little space in the film for righteous black rage and vengeance, but plenty for black humor and conciliation.” He charges “the movie reduced slavery to an ancillary ephemerality and purges it of too much of its barbarism.” However, Blow’s characterization does not accurately reflect the events depicted in the film, nor the history examined by Bynum, whom he cites.

When I first saw the film’s trailer, I momentarily worried about this being a white savior film. Would this be another Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai, where some broken white character places himself in service of the native people, and their suffering serves as catalyst for his self-actualization and redemption? But this film does not belong in that genre.
For starters, Knight’s transformation begins before his contact with rebel slaves. He and other characters in the film are politicized by the wider class contradictions of the Civil War, with the conflict over slavery as one dimension of this milieu. Working as a Confederate nurse, Knight is disturbed by the hypocrisy of the so-called “Twenty Negro Law,” which exempts large slaveholders from military duty, and he is outraged by the daily predation on small farmers by Confederate tax collectors, who seize their corn, hogs, and handicrafts to furnish the battlefront.

The film contrasts the fictional planter James Eakins and the opulence enjoyed by his family with the austere conditions of the Piney Woods yeomanry, the majority of Jones County. Most of the small farmers who populated Southeastern Mississippi did not own slaves, not so much because of some affinity for blacks and their condition, but because of the republican belief of the period that too much wealth and commercial success would lead to moral decay. In the film, Knight briefly refers to the wide gulf in prosperity between Jones County’s small farmers and the patricians of the Delta when he tells soldiers about a house in Natchez rumored to have a golden doorknob. He eventually rebels once he can no longer stand the dissonance between this war waged by wealthy planters and the tremendous hardship, sacrifice, and death of the poor it requires.

But more importantly, there is something more insidious about the “white savior” criticism of the film. By honing in on Knight, the criticism diminishes the role of other characters, particularly the slaves and maroons who reflect a wider working class culture of mutuality and resistance. The film portrays well-documented instances of the frequent and extensive cooperation between slaves, deserters, refugees, and Union sympathizers. For example, we first meet Rachel when she is summoned to save Knight’s ill son. After Knight is mauled by a search party’s dog, maroons offer him herbal medicine, and perhaps more importantly, they provide his first contact with blacks outside the hierarchy and social norms of the town.

The white savior criticism derives from the broader preoccupation with black agency in contemporary academic and popular discourses. This concern with valorizing black self-assertion originated in response to the long-standing tendency in fictional and scholarly representations to neglect or impugn black self-activity. Few contemporary films on black subject matter escape these debates. Critics panned Stephen Spielberg’s 2012 film Lincoln because the plot focused too much on the machinations of Washington politicians, and the president’s attempts to secure the Congressional votes needed to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. An insistence on highlighting black agency during the civil rights movement seemed to guide Ava Duvernay’s 2014 film, Selma, which dramatizes the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. When the film was released, however, veterans of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration and some period historians criticized it for downplaying and distorting the president’s role in the passage of landmark voting rights legislation.

Perhaps this is an intractable problem. All cinematic depictions of history are abbreviations of multifaceted, conjunctural phenomena, and getting to the truth of the matter requires more than two hours or so of passive entertainment. Filmmakers who emphasize black agency seek to inspire pride and similar feats of heroism in their audiences, but they may also obscure the more complex motives of various historical events, actors, and processes. The abolition of slavery was not merely a story of Congressional legislation, nor was the civil rights movement the result of black political assertion and direct-action alone. That said, some films like Free State of Jones provide us with more politically useful representations of history, illuminating the interplay of different forces, individual choices, and material interests.

The Limits of the Yeoman’s Freedom

Importantly, Free State of Jones underscores how struggles for freedom are themselves complexes of many stories, and cannot be reduced to individual assertions of agency or independence.

The Knight Company was born out of the weakened power of the Confederacy and the merchant-landlord class. In the wake of devastating defeats by Union forces at the Battle of Corinth in the fall of 1862 and the Siege of Vicksburg the following spring, thousands deserted the Confederate army. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in 1865, however, would bring an end to this period of tremendous social upheaval and fluidity, and the conditions that allowed the Free State of Jones County to emerge.

The film climaxes after the company repels Confederate troops at Ellisville, and Knight says to them, “From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of Enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones.” He outlines the radically egalitarian principles of the new republic: “No man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich . . . no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he’s got to die for . . . what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain’t no man ought to be able to take that away from you.” Finally: “Every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.”

We are denied any catharsis in this film, however. There is no tidy narrative closure. Instead, we are presented with the lingering consequences of powerful interests aligned against the very kind of egalitarian vision embodied in the republic of Jones County, military Reconstruction, and the marital union of Newton and Rachel Knight. We might relish the heroic gunfight in the cemetery which pits farmers and slaves against Confederate authorities, perhaps the film’s most Hollywood scene, but almost as soon as Knight declares the Free State of Jones County, things begin to unravel. Union support for the pro-Unionist insurrection is tepid, and the end of the war and abolition of slavery give way to a downward spiral of racist reaction.

Southern states enact Black Codes, which regulate the movement of freedpersons, restricting their access to cities and towns, and by default, public life and commerce. The erection of apprenticeship laws, which circumvented the Thirteenth Amendment’s qualified prohibition of slavery and involuntary servitude, also shored up the renascent power of the planter class and their control over black labor.

In the film, when Washington finds out his son has been kidnapped and forced into servitude through apprenticeship, he grabs his gun in an unsuccessful rescue attempt. The courtroom scene that follows is one of the more understated moments in the film, but it is important and contradicts the view of Blow and others who judge cinematic treatments of slavery by how graphically they depict the plantocracy’s depravity and violence. When Washington and Knight lose the court case against Eakins, who is protected by property laws, a furious Knight pays Eakins to secure the boy’s release – perhaps the only instance of him being a true "white savior." Eakins concedes without a fuss and releases the boy, having maintained his economic advantage. This scene underscores that brutality and torture, like Christianity and the legal system, were methods of maintaining the plantation order, but the essential motive of that system was always profit.

Ironically, the yeomen’s relative freedom as small landowners serves as the impetus for both their rebellion against taxation and conscription, and their capitulation to racist Redemption after the war. Small farmers and hired hands were slowly won over to the Democratic Party slogan of white supremacy, with some joining terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, the Red Shirts, and the Knights of the White Camelia, which were dedicated to breaking black Republican support. The racism of some small farmers is clear in the film, but those sentiments only partially explain their retreat from the utopian promise of the Free State of Jones County, and their turn to reactionary politics.

Their motivations were as much economic, an attempt to maintain their relative status as small landholders amid the uncertainty of a war-torn and defeated South. In the film, some members of the Knight Company disband after the victory at Ellisville, fearful that they might lose their farms. Even more decisively, such unease about property, the basis of the yeomanry’s nominal independence, heightens after the war as the power of the merchant-landlord class over the Southern economy and public affairs is gradually restored, foreclosing popular, working class hopes of greater self-assertion. Without federal support for Reconstruction, and a land reform program that would have redistributed parcels to the freedmen to insure them some measure of economic independence, hopes of political freedom were dashed.

Assertions of independence, however bold, mean little without the power to defend the political community and its values. In the story of the Jones County insurrection, we are reminded of the limits of marronage and secession, carving out some small-scale form of political community, outside the authority of large and powerful nations. Slaves throughout the hemisphere created autonomous maroon communities in the wilderness, settlements that often helped to spark rebellion in neighboring plantations. And the Knight Company tried to create its own yeoman’s republic against the plantation class. Others would do the same after the war, forging beyond the Mississippi River, into the plains states, and towards the Sierra Nevada, creating independent towns that were momentarily beyond the reach of federal authorities. None of these social experiments, however, could elude American capitalist expansion, the geographic enclosure of the continent through railroads and political annexation, and the economic integration of backwaters and rural counties into the emerging industrial and imperial power.

“Somebody Else’s Nigger”?

This practice of characterizing white workers as perennially racist and reactionary has reached the level of blood sport during the 2016 presidential primary elections, as all manner of talking heads lined up to write-off the political challenge represented by democratic socialist Senator Bernie Sanders, and to explain the rise of Donald Trump as the Republican Party’s presidential nominee. Many saw both campaigns as fueled by white male working class rage. White working class voters, of course, supported various candidates across the Democratic and GOP fields. And while Trump’s calls for protectionist policy and his scapegoating of immigrants appealed to large sections of the Republican base, the majority of his supporters during the primary season were in fact middle class and affluent whites, not blue-collar voters. Connor Kilpatrick’s “Burying the white Working Class” offers an indispensable, critical review of this conservative tendency among the corporate commentariat. Blow and Newkirk were part of this chorus, and their reviews of Free State of Jones read like an encore performance.

In his review for The Atlantic, Vann Newkirk II is offended by a moment when Knight, preaching at the graveside of comrades hanged by Confederates, says, “Somehow, someway and sometime, everybody is just somebody else’s nigger.” “The notion that white people can be ‘niggers’,” Newkirk writes, “is about as offensive as they come when considering the history of the epithet and how it’s long been utilized by poor whites as a demarcation between whiteness – even its lowest rungs – and blackness. There’s a reason why black people were lynched for voting during Reconstruction and are shot for standing on corners today – one that Knight’s political revolution completely fails to comprehend.” Sadly, Newkirk fails to comprehend so much of the history he glosses over in this passage.

Oddly, Newkirk’s review ignores what happens next in Newt Knight’s eulogy when he turns to Moses Washington, a runaway slave who later serves as a Union League leader. Knight asks Washington, “Mr. Moses, Are you a nigger?” “No. I’m not,” says Washington. “Well, what are you?” ask Knight. “I’m a free man, captain.” “Why is that?” Knight continues. “Because you cannot own a child of God!” Washington says emphatically.

Newkirk neglects this critical dimension of the graveside eulogy, and how their exchange unmasks the mythology of race, the belief that there are in fact “races” of human beings, divided in some essential way by nature, culture, and capacity. It is also worth noting, as Barbara Fields pointed out some time ago in her 1982 essay, “Ideology and Race in American History,” that what we have come to understand as race is a relatively late-breaking development in history. Contrary to popular mythology, race did not solidify at the moment of first contact between Africans and Europeans. Race and racism achieved dominance much later, at the precise moment when the planter class’s control over black labor and the moral legitimacy of slavery were being widely contested.

Newkirk assumes that whiteness and blackness are essential and static categories, totally ignoring how long it took for these markers to become firmly associated with the hierarchies we abide today. The actual history of European immigration and acculturation, and the use of the term “nigger” in public rhetoric are much more complex and surprising that his superficial reading assumes.

Theodore Allen’s The Invention of the White Race, Noel Ignatiev’s How the Irish Became White, and David Roediger’s The Wages of Whiteness – among numerous other scholarly works – examine the ways each successive wave of “white” immigrants to the U.S. were unwelcomed, met by all manner of xenophobia and ethnic prejudice, which often associated them with enslaved blacks. At the start of the Civil War, phrases like “nigger work,” “working like a nigger,” and “white nigger” were used by some to describe unskilled, subservient, and difficult work undertaken by the whites, and often Irish immigrants. Newkirk obviously feels the historical weight of the epithet, but clearly misses its highly contextual, varying social meanings. He and Blow seem to view “race” as a settled matter during the Civil War, and presume that racial identity was the primary and perhaps sole affinity shaping the concerns and actions of slaves, free blacks, small farmers, journeyman, merchants, industrialists, and planters in the middle nineteenth century.

In a sense, these dismissals of Free State of Jones share a strange lineage with Ethel Knight’s The Echo of the Black Horn. She was Newton Knight’s great-grandniece, and her 1951 book was an attempt to silence rumors of her family’s miscegenated heritage. Believing that renewed interest in her uncle was due to “communistic elements,” Ethel Knight portrayed Newton as a race traitor rather than some southern Robin Hood. Leaving no doubt about her allegiances, she dedicated the book to the “Noble Confederates who lived and died for Jones County.” Ethel Knight also sought to bury the memory and reputation of Rachel Knight, characterizing her as a disloyal slave, a “strumpet” and a “jezebel,” but her attempt at character assassination had the effect of piquing later interest in Rachel and her role in the Jones County insurrection.

Although Ethel Knight’s screed against Newt and Rachel Knight was inspired by her segregationist politics, I am afraid these contemporary critics represent a consonant political sensibility, a dogged commitment to identity politics and the view that interracial solidarity is ludicrous and unlikely. If there is a common thread in both Ethel Knight’s revisionist history and those who see Free State of Jones as a white savior film, it is that American politics has always been and should be about staying in one’s ethnic and racial lane. And this is precisely the reason why this film and Bynum’s Free State of Jones need to be appreciated and discussed widely. What is missing from these incessant evasions and put-downs of interracial left progressivism is any serious appreciation of the rich, powerful history of interracial left progressivism itself.

The Freedperson’s Choice

I find it interesting that few of the film’s critics ever mention the significance of its core black characters, Rachel Knight and Moses Washington, nor the deft performances of Mugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali who portray Rachel and Washington respectively. In public interviews, Ali has been clear about the political virtues of the film, and his own motivations for taking on the role, but his artistic choices and politics do not figure into the broadsides of critics. Why did Rachel Knight, or figures like the fictional Moses Washington, make the historical choices that they did? Why did they find common cause with white farmers, carpetbaggers, and scalawags?

The kind of race-talk offered by Blow, Newkirk and others, silences the actual historical choices made by thousands of blacks who took up arms against the Confederacy and worked to advance Reconstruction. For instance, this may be the first film I have seen that spends more than a couple frames depicting the Union League, or Loyal League, men’s clubs that were created to strengthen popular commitments to the Union and the Republican Party. As historian Michael W. Fitzgerald details in his book, The Union League Movement in the Deep South, these secret societies were crucial in politicizing freedmen and building black political power after the war, with thousands joining the League in states like Mississippi and Alabama. In Free State of Jones, we witness more than one League meeting. We glimpse the work of the Freedmen’s schools and the intergenerational students who crowded its schoolhouses. We see freedmen marching to the polls singing “John Brown’s Body” and are reminded of the dangerous work of securing the franchise as we watch Washington, going from field to field to register voters. These are stirring and sobering moments, glimpses of a heroic but often forgotten chapter in black political history.

If I have a criticism of this film, it may well be that its extended, brutal denouement will inspire pessimism, inadvertently underwriting the dismal view of history and politics that the film’s broader storyline challenges. As my son said when we walked out of the theatre, “That was difficult to watch.” We know, however, that even after the fall of Reconstruction, freedpersons, small farmers, radical Republicans, and industrial workers strove to build political alternatives, such as the agrarian Populist Movement, the Comité des Citoyens, and the Knights of Labor. Again, why did freedpersons pursue such a politics – progressive, leftist and interracial – given the expanding and constrictive edifice of Jim Crow law?

For those who think that racism is an obstinate barrier to popular left politics, how do we explain the actions of black scalesmen, teamsters, and packers in New Orleans, who joined the 1892 general strike in that city? And how were the dozens of unions involved able to maintain solidarity despite anti-black racism in some of the locals? How did they prevail, winning the ten-hour day and overtime pay for workers throughout the city?

During the age of Obama, hyperbolic racialism has obscured actual political alignments operating within society. In a moment of economic recession, anxiety, and political disillusionment, Obama emerged as an object of white racist contempt and the personification of black striving. The torrent of right-wing, racist attacks against the president, from the astro-turf protests of the Birthers and the Tea Party to the obstructionism of the Republican-led Congress, and all manner of lesser insults, have been perceived as an affront to all blacks, and as evidence of the futility of an alternative politics rooted in the lived experiences and felt needs of working people broadly. Despite his expressed commitment to neoliberal politics, which is antagonistic to the civil rights and social progressivism that defined black political life throughout the Cold War, Obama’s ascendancy was viewed by legions as a continuation of earlier black political struggles. American liberal thinking has long elided class, but the resurgent racialism of the Obama years has made it even more difficult to discuss class interests in a meaningful way.

The very meaning of class has been lost in our times, too often equated with gradations of education, income, and wealth. These categories serve as rough indicators of class, but none fully reflects its social character under late capitalism. In American public debate as well, race is used as a rough proxy for class, with white and black sometimes serving as synonyms for rich and poor, middle class and welfare dependent. Free State of Jones reminds us of a core truth of class relations – the shared material interests of those who are compelled by force or necessity to work. In today’s economy, where job security and living wages are scarce, many people know what it means to be overworked, underpaid, and disposable – what it is like to be “somebody else’s nigger” – even if they resent being associated with those who have long symbolized hyperexploitation.

In the end, this film is valuable for how well it reveals historical complexities of race, class, and power in America, and for what it says about political life and democratic possibility. Free State of Jones should unsettle us and the racial thinking that dominates our times. If the prevailing view is that racism is America’s “original sin,” thwarting every attempt to abolish inequality and exploitation, Free State of Jones challenges such thinking. The film does not diminish the dehumanizing character of slavery, nor the vulnerability endured by freedpersons during Reconstruction. It captures those realities in disturbing detail, but it also provides us with an insightful parable of progressive left politics.

For further reading:

Victoria Bynum, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2016).

Barbara Fields, “Ideology and Race in American History,” http://history.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/slides/ideology.pdf

Connor Kilpatrick, “Burying the White Working Class,” Jacobin 13 May 2016 https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/05/white-workers-bernie-sanders-clinton-primary-racism/