Life, war, and survival during this era was extremely brutal and cruel.
The film Free State of Jones is not for the squeamish. One of the first things that strikes you about this film is its intense brutality. And that’s as it should be. The film opens by showing, at times in gory detail, the aftermath of a Civil War battle. And while these scenes churn the stomach in some of their details, it seems a fitting opening for a movie that takes on the subjects of slavery, war, and survival, and the brutality that accompanies them all.
Suffering is so omnipresent and dramatically portrayed, that it almost becomes a character in this film. I was especially impressed by the way in which women and families left behind were portrayed in this movie. It shows in a very real way how difficult and uncertain their lives were in these conditions. Even bands of Confederates preyed upon these families. The women’s loyalty was to no one, except to each other and their own children. They were forced to take extreme measures to protect what little food and shelter they had. Though not on the battlefield per se, these women had their own war to fight, and fight they did.
The sufferings of those held in bondage are also dramatically portrayed. Some continue to suffer and be tormented, even after they have left the plantation for good. The runaway Moses exemplifies this. He suffers, even in his strength. And though hiding out in the swamp, he still quite literally carries the burden of his experiences with him. (Details omitted to maintain dramatic integrity for those who have not yet seen the film.)
Racial identity is absurd and fluid
A telling line of dialogue occurs when Newt Knight (portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) first arrives at the runaway slaves’ hideout in the swamp. The joke is, “Who’s the —— now?” since Newt has been pursued and bitten by hounds and has sought shelter among runaways. He flees the Confederate authorities just like the runaway slaves. Further questions of race arise when the film fast forwards to the 1960s to a courtroom scene that seeks to prove that a man – who appears to be white – is actually, under Mississippi law, black – and therefore guilty of miscegenation (race mixing) by marrying his white wife. Although the courtroom scenes serve as an interesting counterpoint to the main part of the film set during the Civil War and Reconstruction – it points out how complicated, convoluted, and insidious America’s obsession with racial identity has remained, well into the twentieth century – and as recent events have shown, into our own time.
What behavior, actions, and feelings identify someone as “American”?
When Newt declares the “Free State of Jones” [County], I thought – how quintessentially American. He declares that they are only loyal to each other and to the land they live on and till, with their own hands – and no one else. No planters, and no government, North or South, will tell Newt and his cohorts what to do. Newt leads a rebellion within a rebellion. And despite some later flag-waving, its hard to say that Newt and the others of Jones County are loyal to the Union. Instead, it seems, they are loyal only to themselves.
This leads to another observation. A frequent refrain throughout the film is: “You’re kin. Of course we’ll take care of you.” This exemplifies the Southern tradition of deep and extensive kinship networks. No matter the circumstances, kinship comes first. This theme is manifested in multiple ways throughout the movie, and is not always spoken. The black runaways in the swamp quickly become a type of “kin” to Newt – even before he and the former slave Rachel become a couple. Newt shows his commitment to this expansive definition of kinship when he and others (predominantly black) of the post-war Union League go to vote. Other examples of kinship include frequent burials in the churchyard, and the common suffering they all endured during the war. Besides the familial blood-ties, it is clear that in Newt Knight’s world, kinship also comes from a common place, common suffering, common socioeconomic class, and common interests. Just like race, kinship is a social construct, not limited by biology.
All in all I found Free State of Jones to be an interesting and gripping film. It is thought-provoking and tells a long-hidden part of our history. It echoes into the present day, in the areas of race relations, class and economic strata. It complicates our understanding of the Civil War and its legacy. I’m so grateful to author Victoria Bynum for bringing this story to light, and to the film industry for bringing it to the big screen.