Intense biopic, directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), about real-life persona Newt Knight's fight against the oppression of people from 1861 onward who lived in Mississippi & other southern states. The movie highlights the degradation of the slaves & former slaves during & after the war & continuing until the movie's present day - 1948.
I am a history lover & appreciate movies that attempt to reconstruct with facts the sanitized version of history that we were taught in school. Sometimes, historical movies will embellish the facts & take liberties in the retelling, but the important take away is the message that, historically, all is not as we may have been led to believe. I find it interesting that during 1861-1865 & afterward, the "Civil War" was referred to in print media of the time as "The War of the Rebellion." Newt Knight's struggle was considered by Confederate powers to be a rebellion. Perhaps he took his cue from the acts of the Confederacy, which seceded from the laws of the United States, declaring Confederate states to be collectively free from the laws of the country.
***POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT**
The star of Free State of Jones is Matthew McConaughey portraying Newt Knight, a 6'4" strapping, white farmer who deserts the Confederate army & proclaims that his home town of Jones County, Mississippi is seceding from the Confederacy. (Jones County never voted to secede from the Union but its vote was not accurately passed forward by its representative in the state legislature). It is also about Knight's descendant, Davis Knight, who went on trial in 1948 for miscegenation. He was found to have violated Mississippi's "one-drop" law that made it illegal for a person who had one drop of African-American blood in them to legally marry a white person. After the trial establishes that Davis is not 100% white, he is required to annul his marriage or face prison.
Newt Knight deserted his military post due to the Twenty Negro Law, which exempted from Confederate service, one white male per 20 slaves owned. This meant that rich plantation owners with many slaves didn't have to fight & only the poor or non-slave owning southern male would be required to fight the war. This law infuriated Knight & other southerners.
As enlightening as this movie may be, it also leads viewers to think that only southern states & Ku Klux Klan members persecuted former slaves, African Americans. Given Mississippi's prejudicial laws against African-Americans, & the violent crimes against them, I would agree, yet deep-south states were not alone in their commiseration to torment & discriminate against former slaves. Post-Civil War sundown laws enacted in Northern or former Union states attempted to ensure that their communities would remain all-white by threatening the welfare of African-Americans (& other ethnic groups like the Chinese). It is strange that the Union North who fought for the freedom of African-American slaves not only did not welcome them into all Northern/Union communities, but also went so far as to enact legislation threatening them if they attempted to relocate north/west. While Sundown towns prevented unwanted ethnic groups from moving north (or west), the blatant violent acts of the KKK throughout history (& graphically depicted in the movie) are without excuse & the movie's portrayal of victims in such a climate of fear & danger is heart wrenching.
According to a Smithsonian magazine article about Newt & Jones County, Newt was originally married to a white woman, Serena, & fathered many children with her over the years. Newt also concurrently lived with former slave, Rachel, & fathered many children with her. Both Rachel & Serena also had children with other men. One of Rachel's daughters by another man, Georgeanne, bore Newt's children after Rachel died. Because both black & white society shunned Newt's offspring, Newt encouraged his children to marry each other & so offspring of Rachel by another man married offspring of Newt & Serena, etc. Newt was proud of his mixed race children & ultimately lived outside of white society altogether. Newt deeded 160 acres to Rachel since he never married her. Newt was buried beside Rachel despite laws banning mixed race burial grounds. Although Newt’s proclivities toward polyamory and his encouragement for relative-intermarrying may be viewed as shocking, it certainly reinforces his position on race relations - he truly lacked racial prejudice and was progressive for his time.
I had never heard of Newt Knight or his efforts toward equality between races. I recommend this movie. It is not going to keep you on the edge of your seat with suspense, but it is a worthwhile biopic that provides a more accurate climate during & post-war, demonstrates the brutal violence that transpired, & pervasive racism that tainted legislation at the state level for too long.