Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War
History vs Hollywood, movie, book, audio book.
The popular movie “Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a non-slave owner, who deserts from the Confederate army and leads a biracial guerilla band hiding in the swamps has excited a great deal of interest because it challenges the long held Myth of the Lost Cause. Historians have generally praised the movie for showing to a wide audience that the South was not unified in its support for slavery and some people, such as Newt and his followers, resented the “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight” of the CSA to protect slavery. Historians also appreciate that Gary Ross consulted and actually listened to experts of the period in particular Victoria E. Bynum whose impressively researched book Free State of Jones was published in 2001. Political commentators and film critics have been less generous with their appraisal of the film. They seem to want something different from the actual historical Newt and would have preferred a completely fictional movie that satisfies their own political purposes or concepts of a proper narrative arc. It is a shame they have such a poor understanding of history. Other reviewers seem to dislike the un-triumphant movie ending. Hollywood has taught audiences to expect a feel good ending but real life Reconstruction make that impossible.
The good news is no one has to take their word for it. Many people, with their interest piqued, will order the book both in print and the newly released audio book. They can watch the movie, then read or listen to the book. This is the perfect opportunity to explore the ways a movie adaptation of true events is different from an excellent academic meticulously researched book.
Newt Knight was a man who defied social rules by deserting from the Confederacy, hiding in the swamp with runaway slaves and other deserters to fight the Rebels and declare Jones County, Mississippi as the Free State of Jones. Some of his men were captured and executed and, as in the movie, the women in their family cut them down. Women also aided the Knight Company. Newt also took a black wife who had several mixed race children.
Free State of Jones is an excellent comprehensive study that begins with people in the back country of North Carolina during the Revolutionary War who settled Jones County bringing with them their sense of justice and attitudes toward tyranny. Bynum mines everyavailable source to recreate the society of Jones County through the decades from settlement into the 20th century.
Bynum describes the mixed race community created by the tangled and complicated extended families who intermarried and created their own schools living in defiance of the hardening Jim Crow attitudes. Bynum expertly places Davis Knight’s 1948 charge of miscegenation in the larger historical context of the period and expertly connects it to Newt Knight’s flaunting sexual racial norms of his day.
Newton Knight has been portrayed as a principled American patriot fighting for civil rights for African Americans and his mixed race progeny and as an unprincipled, villainous traitor who betrayed his race, the Confederacy and transgressed racial boundaries. Whichever narrative a person believes reveals a great deal about that person’s attitude about race and the Confederacy.
There are no letters or diaries of Newt, his white wife nor his black wife to tell us what their actual relationships were. This is the biggest difference between a movie and a history, the creative license to recreate dialogue. Another big difference is the creation of composite characters to show historical events. In the film, Moses, is a composite character but his experiences happened to African Americans, such as: remaining himself upon freedom, thinking that “40 acres and a mule” would happen, having children apprenticed, joining the Union League, fighting for suffrage and then being lynched for that act of citizenship. Yes, even his castration.
The audio version of Free State of Jones is narrated by the melodious voice of Mahershala Ali, who plays Moses in the film. The preface and epilogue are narrated by Bynum who describes how she became interested in the story and in her new epilogue she tells of new information gathered since the first publication. On Bynum’s blog, Renegade South, descendants of men of the Knight Company have shared information and genealogy.
The paper copy contains photos of Newt and his mixed race descendants, a timeline, family trees and footnotes, not available on the audio version.
The movie, the paper book and the audio book all offer different experiences concerning this important story of American history. One thing they all do is correct the wrong history of the South as monolithic in support of the Confederacy. This is a much needed death blow to the Myth of the Lost Cause.
Victoria E. Bynum’s Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War is vital to our understanding of today’s society. She is a top notch historian and her work is changing perceptions of the Confederacy, Reconstruction and Civil Rights.