4 Stars – Powerful
The painful history of the American Civil War reveals the damaging impact of slavery on the soul of our nation. Although racial prejudice and hatred is not unique to the people of our nation, the institution of slavery gave legal and cultural approval that is still harming us today. While some are trying to rewrite the history of the war and claim that it was not about protecting the institution of slavery, the secession proclamation of the State of Mississippi makes it clear when it states: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world.” It is in Mississippi that we find Jones County and the story of an anti-slavery Baptist named Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey). Brought to the screen by Gary Ross (screenplay for Hunger Games and Seabiscuit), The Free State of Jones is loosely based on Knight’s life.
A complex man whose stubborn insistence on not fighting a war that was designed to protect the wealth of the slave owners, Knight deserts the Confederate Army when his young nephew is shot and killed. Returning to Jones County with his body, he finds others hiding out in the swamps who have either fled as slaves or deserted as soldiers. A commanding presence and a strategic genius, Knight soon becomes the leader of this band which grows to over 160 men.
In addition to refusing to fight for the wealthy slave-owners, Knight and his neighbors are suffering under the oppressive taxation of the military who regularly raid their farms for produce and livestock to feed the soldiers who are fighting in the war. But when the legal 10% tax they take becomes 90%, the families of Jones County are in danger of starving. This injustice only fuels the rebellion as they decide to take back the food that was confiscated.
The personal story woven into this military rebellion is a love affair that begins with a slave girl named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) after Knight’s wife (Keri Russell) abandons him and takes their son. It is their mixed-race relationship that expresses both the racial equality that Knight believes but also provides a mirror of the prejudice that continues for decades following the war. This is evidenced as the film interplays scenes from the 1860’s with the 1940’s when Knight’s great grandson is found guilty of the crime at that time of a negro man marrying a white woman even though he has only a fraction of Rachel’s blood four generations later.
One of the film’s underlying themes is Knight’s Christian faith. Believing that every person is created in the image of God and worthy of respect and freedom, Knight lives this both politically and personally. This is seen not only in his standing up for his poor white and black neighbors but also in his service as a medical orderly for the Confederate Army. Although he is willing to take a human life for what he believes are just reasons, he will not do so for a government that does not care for the poor nor to help the rich get richer. His commitment to his values continues to be matched by his courage in the years following the war when he fights for his black neighbors against the racism that permeates the community and escalates into attacks by the Ku Klux Klan.
Although The Free State of Jones is a difficult film to watch due to its graphic violence, it does shed light on the fact that not everyone in the South during the Civil War was in agreement with protecting the institution of slavery. That is an important addition to our understanding of the war that emancipated all of us from the evil that is slavery and put us on a path where we can face and confront our racism and truly value every human being as a child of God.
- It is hard to imagine the horror of war so powerfully portrayed in this film. Why do you believe humanity has this “warring madness”? How do you think it can be stopped?
- The interracial relationship Knight and Rachel had could not be formalized into marriage in Mississippi until after the 1950’s. Why do you think societal change is so difficult when evil has a grip on a nation? What is a current social evil that is gripping our nation?
- Do you agree that all people are children of God and deserve to be treated with respect? What do you base this belief upon? When does this belief require you to act with courage?
For those who want to explore the historicity of the film, here is one of several sites: http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us/articles/309/newton-knight-and-the-legend-of-the-free-state-of-jones.