‘Free State of Jones” is the film Reconstruction historians have been waiting for. Reconstruction, which encompassed the decade following the Civil War, is perhaps the most overlooked era in American history. It is the only period that doesn’t have a National Park Service site commemorating it.
Reconstruction, which witnessed the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and the first widespread political enfranchisement of African-Americans, is ripe with stories for filmmakers.
Yet, since the racist celebration of the Ku Klux Klan in “Birth of a Nation” (1915) and “Gone With the Wind” (1939), no major Hollywood film has addressed the violence and drama of the era.
Director Gary Ross has begun to fix this oversight by making a Reconstruction film disguised as a Civil War action flick.
The movie follows the historical Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who formed a band of between 100 and 300 Confederate deserters.
The Knight Company waged its own guerilla war against Confederate authorities in southern Mississippi.
Much of the story is now lost to myth, but after the war Knight remained active in Republican politics and had a common-law marriage with a former slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
By showing a different side of the Civil War and continuing the story into Reconstruction, “Free State of Jones” breaks new ground.
Those who loved watching “Gettysburg” and “Gods and Generals” may not recognize the war depicted in “Free State of Jones,” but they should still enjoy it.
The film is not focused on the battlefield heroics of the two sides. Instead, it focuses on another part of the Civil War: the war at home.
The movie does not present an idealized version of the old South full of lovely plantations. Instead, it focuses on the lives of poor whites and slaves. Ross offers a nuanced depiction of anti-Confederate dissent in the South. For example, the film rightly shows that many of Knight’s followers were not diehard Unionists or abolitionists, but were instead motivated by opposition to Confederate conscription and taxes.
By depicting so many Southerners fighting against Confederate troops, the film counters the commonly held misconception that there was near unanimous support for the Confederacy among Southern whites.
The persistent motif of paternalistic slaveholders and content slaves is similarly skewered by Ross’ inclusion of the ugliest aspects of the old South, including the rape and torture of slaves. And unlike most Civil War movies, “Free State of Jones” does not end with the surrender at Appomattox.
The last 30 minutes or so of the film challenge an outdated version of Reconstruction that is still taught today in some South Carolina schools by exposing viewers to new scholarly interpretations of the past.
The racist treatment of Reconstruction in “Birth of a Nation” showed how the period was viewed by some in 1915. “Free State of Jones” provides the public an update on how historians understand the period today.
The decision to “footnote” the movie via a website (freestateofjones.info) will make this an even more powerful teaching tool for high school and college teachers.
Some critics complain that the film suffers from a white savior narrative because McConaughey plays a white protagonist who aids former slaves. But Knight was an actual historical figure who aided African-Americans, and the film is based on a well-researched book by historian Victoria Bynum.
Additionally, the film shows McConaughey failing to save his African-American friends and family. The picture is ultimately a tragedy that shows how African-Americans were systematically disenfranchised and oppressed during Reconstruction, despite their best efforts.
The movie also dramatically displays African Americans struggling to gain full freedom for themselves through education, black militias, voter registration, political rallies and facing down mobs to cast a ballot.
Most importantly, this is the first blockbuster to so accurately and disturbingly display the heartrending postwar response of Southern whites to emancipation.
The film shows the terrible violence, torture, lynching, arson, black codes and electoral fraud that undermined Reconstruction and restored much of the prewar power structure across the South.
In the end, McConaughey’s Knight loses his war. This is historically accurate as Reconstruction ended and Jim Crow followed in time. A parallel story line tracing Knight’s great-grandson on trial for miscegenation in 1948 reminds audiences that the present is always tied to the distant past.
A big-budget historical film that critically and visually connects the Confederacy to postwar violence against black bodies is groundbreaking and sorely needed. Ross has said he hopes to see similar films in the future, including one about South Carolina’s own Robert Smalls. Me, too.
Adam H. Domby is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the College of Charleston.