Friday, June 24, 2016

Free State of Jones [2016]

MPAA (R)  CNS/USCCB (A-III)  ChiTribune (2 1/2 Stars) (2 1/2 Stars)  AVClub (C)  Fr. Dennis (3 1/2 Stars)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB (J. McCarthy) review
ChicagoTribune (M. Phillips) review (G. Cheshire) review
AVClub (J. Hassenger) review

Every Movie Has a Lesson (D. Shanahan) review

Mississippi Historical Society (J.R. Kelly, Jr) article about Newton Knight and the Free State of Jones
Smithsonian Magazine (R. Grant) article The True Story of the Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones [2016] (directed  and screenplay by Gary Ross, screenstory by Leonard Hartman) tells a story that on multiple levels would feel "new" to many Viewers, including many in the United States, but is one that is (1) actually true [wikip] [MHS], and (2) deserves to be explored much, much further in the coming years, and again on multiple levels.

What's the story about?  The film tells the story of Newton Knight [wikip] [MHS] (played wonderfully by Matthew McConaughey who even bears him a striking resemblance) who was a Southern Unionist and who came from a part of Mississippi (Jones County) that _never_ really supported Mississippi's secession from the Union at the start of the Civil War.

The principal reason for the region's "lack of enthusiasm" for Secession was that it was a relatively poor county with very few slaves (only 12% of its population, the lowest in the State) and hence its residents had little use for a War to support the "right" of rich land-owners to own slaves that most of them did not have.  This lack of enthusiasm grew into first desertion from the Confederate Armies and later into OPEN REBELLION in the County and the surrounding counties on account of:

(1) the passage of the infamous "20 Slave Law" that exempted the sons of rich land owners from military service based on the number of slaves (in multiples of 20) that they owned (owning 20 slaves gave a family 1 exemption, 40 two, 60 three ...) making the war effectively "A Rich Man's War" but a "Poor Man's Fight" something that BY ALL ACCOUNTS simply DISGUSTED Newt Knight who deserted the Confederate Army soon afterwards preferring to simply live in the swamps of his home county _often in the company of runaway slaves_ than to risk his life for rich men who wanted to continue to have the right to continue to own them.   (During those years of "living in the swamps" Knight came to know and later, after the war, MARRIED a black woman named Rachel (played in the film by Gugu Mbatha Raw) beside whom Segregation Era Laws beside whom, at the end of his life, he was buried).

(2) the often stupid and perceived as draconian / WILDLY UNFAIR taxation practices of the Confederate government that would simply _seize_ the property of the poorer farmers -- corn, pigs, horses -- in support of the war effort.

After the fall of Vicksburg in 1863, desertions became a small torrent, and Newt Knight came to lead a company of about 125 men - both white deserters and runaway blacks - who based in the impenetrable swamps began to TAKE THE FIGHT to the Confederate tax agents personified in the film by Lt. Barbour (played by Bill Tangradi) and Colonel Robert Lowry (played by Wayne Pére) the latter an actual historical figure though conflated in the film with another notorious local Confederate officer named Major Amos Lemore [MHS].  In 1864, Newt's Company over-ran the Jones County Seat of Ellisville, MS, hoisting an Union Flag in its square and perhaps in protest to a lack of support on the part of the by the nearby Union Army of Willam T. Sherman, by legend declared "The Free State of Jones" before retreating back into the swamps in face of a Confederate Force gathered to try to destroy them once and for all.

So the film tells a FASCINATING history of UNIONIST south-eastern Mississippi, a history that I did not know about before watching the film, but I'm _not_ surprised existed ... Indeed, we've long been taught in school about the "southern leanings" of many northern states, including southern Illinois and much of Indiana.  This was THE FIRST TIME that I learned of a SECTION OF A SOUTHERN STATE that had _little enthusiasm_ for the Southern Cause.

The film also INVITES viewers to learn more about another phenomenon that I do know some more about, but would certainly like to learn more as well: the presence of communities of escaped (self-liberated) slaves across the swamps and forests of the American South. 

I first learned of the of the historical existence of such communities when I was stationed at a parish in Central Florida (and working with a rather significant Haitian community living there) after encountering a book entitled The Black Seminoles:History of a Freedom Seeking People (1996), ed. K.W. Porter [GR] [WCat] [Amzn] [wikip].  I have since learned that communities of such self-liberated slaves, known as Maroons, existed _all across the Caribbean_.  Thanks to the ArtMattan sponsored Annual African Diaspora Film Festivals held here in Chicago, I've encountered at least two films about them: Maluala [1979] about such communities that existed across the forests/jungles of colonial Cuba and another entitled Aliku Liba: Maroon Again [2009] about communities of the descendants of such self-liberated slaves that exist _to this day_ in the interior of French Guiana.   Additionally, a significant community of Jamaican Maroons successfully defended itself despite several wars against it until Jamaican independence in 1962.  A vibrant community of Black Nova Scotians composed of escaped African slaves from the United States and their descendants existed in Canadian Nova Scotia as well.  Finally, similar communities of Quilombos, the descendants of self-liberated African slaves, exist all across the jungles of Amazonian Brazil

The stories of all these communities are worth pursuing by Viewers of the current film / Readers here who may be irritated (certainly in part legitimately) that the current film's hero was, once again, a white man.

I'd also encourage Readers here to follow-up by reading-up on various opposition movements to the often violently imposed "Jim Crow" Segregation Regime that followed the Reconstruction Era [wikip]  [PBS], and then some fascinatingly "uniquely Southern" approaches to defending / increasing black civil rights, during the early years of the the Civil Rights Era notably the campaign of a rural North Carolina NAACP official named Rob Williams [wikip] [book] [Amzn] [film] to (in the still Segregated South of the 1950s) organize a series of ALL BLACK "GUN CLUBS" ;-) which served to guarantee that at least in his home county of Monroe, North Carolina BLACKS WERE ARMED :-).

However, I do believe there's another part of the current film that was certainly worth telling in any case -- that of the existence of _significant numbers_ of WHITE SOUTHERNERS who OPPOSED Southern Secession even to the point of ARMED RESISTANCE AGAINST IT.

So I found the film _definitely_ worth the view and would definitely encourage younger historians / film-makers to pursue similar stories in the future.  Since Ken Burn's [wikip] [IMDb] landmark documentary The Civil War [1990] [wikip] [IMDb] which featured African American historian Barbara J. Fields [wikip] [IMDb] (along with Southerner Shelby Foote [wikip] [IMDb]) giving much of the commentary, I have recoiled at ANY / EVERY FURTHER ATTEMPT to present the Civil War as a conflict in which both sides "had some truth."  NO, the South seceded to defend ITS RICH PEOPLE'S "right" TO OWN BLACK PEOPLE and sent POOR WHITE PEOPLE to war AS CANNON FODDER to defend that "right."

As such, I've consistently supported serious films like Cold Mountain [2003] and the current film as well as more comic films like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter [2012] and Django Unchained [2012] which made the point:  Whatever "honor" poor white soldiers "had" in fighting for the Confederacy during the Civil War, IT WAS MISPLACED.  At best these white Confederate soldiers were duped, at worst they were willing collaborators in defending an Evil cause.

So I thoroughly applaud the making of this film as a support of the contention that _at least_ SOME WHITE SOUTHERNERS resisted the Evil cause of the Confederacy (and later Segregation).

Good job in reminding us of this and giving us an opportunity to learn more about this in the future!

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