The Free State of Jones shines a light on an oft-forgotten era of history
In 2013, The Supreme Court invalidated a key component of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This law was meant to protect the rights of black voters in the south by forcing Southern states to gain federal approval before making any changes to their voting laws. Two months after the Supreme Court decision, North Carolina took advantage of the new law by passing strict voter ID requirements, eliminating same day voter registration, shortening the early voting period by seven days, and requiring that votes cast at the wrong polling station be thrown out.
While these changes seem the lesser of evils when compared to previous voter disenfranchisement provisions in the south, which often featured violence and intimidation, the overall result is the same—limit the number of black voices that participate in elections in order to solidify the power structure of a white majority.
That this happened so quickly after the decision shows that, despite arguments made by Chief Justice John Roberts that “our country has changed,” politics and race relations in the South are still haunted by events that started with the country’s very inception.
Hollywood has long loved Civil War stories. From Gone with the Wind to Glory, film after film has told the story of our battle against each other. But very few have dealt with the immediate aftermath known as Reconstruction. The Free State of Jones tells the story of a different band of rebels in Mississippi, examining both the causes and consequences of the war and the ways that wealthy southerners continued to manipulate the system to maintain their power long after the final shots were fired.
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a nurse for the Confederate Army who, like many poor southern farmers, increasingly felt disillusioned by the war effort. The film begins on the battlefield, with Knight caring for a fallen young man, ensuring he gets medical attention by telling the infirmary that patient is an officer. Much of the film focuses on questions of class and status, on the different worlds that exist for the wealthy and powerful.
The Confederacy has recently passed a law allowing men who own 20 slaves to return home to their farms—if they own 40, they can also bring a son. The more slaves owned the more family members are excused from service. After his teenage nephew is conscripted and killed in the Battle of Corinth, Knight deserts to take the body home to Jones county, Mississippi. When he arrives, he learns that the Confederacy is raiding farms to fund the war effort, but instead of taking the allotted 10 percent, the soldiers take everything, leaving women and children to starve.
Knight defends a farm from these bandits and in the process becomes wanted and is forced to flee to the swamps, chased by the same dogs used to find runaway slaves. He lives for a time with escaped slaves before he begins to amass an army of deserters and resist the Confederates for the remainder of the war.
Newton Knight’s rebellion is only part of the film, however. The second half is dedicated to what happens in the South afterwards. The action is interspersed with courtroom scenes a generation or two later, where a descendent of Newton Knight is on trial for marrying a white woman while being 1/16 black, just enough for it to be illegal in the state of Mississippi. It draws parallels between two time periods, showing just how resistant the South has been to change.
The film shows how many of the white men that stood with Knight during his rebellion abandoned him and his belief in freedom as military governors from the North are installed and the South is forced to comply with the new “slavery free” world. There was ostensibly no difference immediately following the war—the rich white masters swore allegiance to the Union, returned to their plantations, and continued to buy slaves as “apprentices” to work their farms. The North was forced to occupy the South to force compliance with the law, but the application of these laws were inconsistent and lenient, creating the environment that led to a Jim Crow South that endured for more than a generation.
The Free State of Jones is an excellent film that examines a time period much of America wants to forget. Reconstruction is largely seen as failure, as the policies kept the South from advancing with the rest of the country. It took 100 years for the Voting Rights Act to be passed after the Civil War—100 years of disenfranchisement because of the mishandling of Reconstruction by the North. That southern states immediately began restricting the rights of voters in 2013 after the Supreme Court decision shows just how much of a failure those policies were.
Good films encourage thought and reflection. The Free State of Jones is a good film.