Rebellion, freedom, equality, the South and a lot of guns might be some of the words that could describe the essence of the Free State of Jones. It is a film that tells the story of a man who decided to lead a rebellion against the Confederates to establish a free “state” in Jones County during the U.S. Civil War.
Directed and written by Gary Ross, Free State of Jones was released on June 24 alongside with Independence Day: Resurgence and The Shallows. The Free State of Jones was filmed about 100 miles outside Jones County in the State of Louisiana.
Although this movie has received mixed reviews so far, having an average rating of 40/100 according to Rotten Tomatoes, Marc Morial – an American politician and current leader of The National Urban League – has said to Nola.com that the Free State of Jones is not just a movie, it is also an important history lesson.
Newton Knight: An African-American human rights protector
After surviving the Battle of Corinth (1862) the main character of the movie Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a ragged, yellow-toothed poor farmer from Mississippi, leads a rebellion with other small farmers and slaves against the Confederates in his native town Jones County.
Knight started his rebellion after a new law that allowed farmers swap 20 slaves for their military service. Since Knight and other farmer buddies did not own slaves, they decided not to fight a war that he believed it was just a rich men fight.
After leaving the army, Knight and his friends witnessed how their wives had to struggle not only to survive but also to pay the high tax Confederates had imposed in the region. As a result, small farmers and Confederate deserters started to organize themselves throughout the Mississippi. By hunting the rebels down, Confederates sent Maj Amos McLemore to Jones County to stop a possible rebellion. However, McLemore got killed by a man presumably known as Newton Knight. After McLemore’s murder, deserters chose Knight as their leader and protector of their farms against the Confederates.
Knight and his followers threw the Confederates out of Jones County and proclaimed it as the Free State of Jones. As a leader, it is said that Knight wrote his own constitution stating that all men were created equal regardless of race.
“He wrote his own constitution, starting with, ‘If you can stand on two legs, you’re a man,’ ” McConaughey said, according to People.
In the movie, it is also portrayed how Knight fell in love with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), his grandfather’s former slave after he separating from his wife Serena Knight (Keri Russell). Knight had nine children with Serena and 5 with Rachel. Knight’s descendants continue to live in Jones.
According to McConaughey, Knight lived 40 years of his life in an interracial community. He said his character never gave up fighting for the rights of African-Americans, and when he passed away, he was buried next to his black wife, Rachel Knight.
Free State of Jones isn’t just a movie, says Marc Morial
According to former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial and leader of the National Urban League, the Free State of Jones is not just a movie it is an important history lesson that breaks myths about the Civil War.
From the red carpet of the Free States Jones premiere in Los Angeles this week, Morial explains how different it is told the American Civil War history depending on the country’s region.
He states that for people who lived in the South, they might have gotten a story that glorified the ‘Lost Cause’ movement, which indicated there was a white union resistance to Northern aggression. But in the case of the people who lived in the North, Morial states that they have gotten the story about Lincoln’s efforts to hold the nation together, to unify the country.
“Well, underneath that, there were many, many stories that have not yet been fully. This movie tells one of those stories,” said Morial.
Morial believes Gary Ross new film is a fascinating story but also little known among Americans. However, he pointed out that the movie helps break the myth of Southern unity.
“We’re not often told that the battle for abolition – the battle against slavery – we’re not often told that in the South there were white allies,” he said. “Newt Knight was one,” said Morial.
As for director and screenwriter Gary Ross, he states that Knight was seen as a traitor to the Confederacy and excoriated, but over time the next generations embraced him. He believes that this film is about race injustice; an ongoing issue, and unfortunately still relevant today. To Ross, Americans compelled to deal with race injustice in their country although it should be in the past.