The Free State of Jones (2016). Directed by Gary Ross. Produced by Kilik, Gary Ross, and Scott Stuber.
The Free State of Jones tells the story of Newton Knight and his armed revolt against the Confederate Army located at Jones County, Mississippi during the American Civil War and the start of Reconstruction. The film transitions toward Davis Knight, Newton’s Great Great Grandson, and Davis’s arrest in 1948 as Mississippi prevented him from marrying his girlfriend of a different race. His case was overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court before the eventual Civil Rights Movement. I accessed the film via Netflix. The film is based on Historian Victoria Bynum and her work The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War and The State of Jones by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer.
Big Themes: The big themes of the film include how racial and class divisions, equality, and violence shaped the 19th century United States.
The film asks several questions about how the violent Civil War influenced Reconstruction. Newton deserted the Confederate Army and joined a group that consisted of deserters, runaway black slaves, and women to found a new county in Mississippi: The Free State of Jones. The film introduced the theme of loyalty and how loyalty to the Confederacy influenced soldiers and civilians. The film asks questions such as did loyalty to the Confederacy justify forced military service? Did loyalty to the Confederacy mean they could confiscate your land under the pretense of helping the greater good? Newton became disillusioned with the CSA and deserted the army. The film is historically accurate apart from Newton’s reasons to desert the Confederacy and secondary protagonists were created from a composite of multiple freedmen and rebels. Other inaccuracies include events that were fabricated to increase suspense or drama. Nevertheless, it is a thought-provoking and compelling story that depicts how the Civil War led to Reconstruction. The film analyzed the Civil War and raised the question that, in a sense, the war did not end in 1865 because true equality was not achieved by its conclusion or through Reconstruction.
The Free State of Jones reminded me of Historian Eric Foner and Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution because the ideas and questions about liberty and equality that the war was fought over are still being asked today so there is a continued unfinished revolution for equality for all. The film has problems with pacing and that it attempts to force a lot of information, questions, and ideas at the viewer in a very short amount of time.
Key moment 1 runs from 1:33:33 to 1:36:00. Newton Knight stands with his company of women, freedmen, and deserters to declare themselves as separate from the Union or Confederacy as their own country known as the Free State of Jones. This is immediately after they raid a Confederate portion of Southeast Mississippi. They hold the Free State of Jones until the end of the Civil War when the Confederacy is dissolved.
The second key scene from 1:57:42 to 2:01:00 depicts Moses Washington, a Freedman registering other freedmen to vote in elections. He is harassed by KKK members shortly before he is lynched. Newton, now a Mississippi Parish reacts by marching Freedmen to vote in the next election after 1865. The scene is important because it conveys that the violence from the Civil War did not end and carried over into the Reconstruction Era.
Teaching and Learning:
I would use this film along with Lincoln (2012) to depict the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is a good example on how films can take historical creativity to create drama and suspense. Nevertheless, it does a great job of depicting how the violent Civil War influenced a violent Reconstruction.