This new movie about the Civil War and the institution of slavery is a very different take than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln of a few years ago.
Spielberg’s film is about the battle of the North to win hegemony in the fight for a forward-looking capitalism that would see the end of formal slavery and bring Southern plantation owners to heel. The film is told from the point of view of ruling class Republican and Democratic politicians, and details the machinations at the top of society. More particularly, Lincoln himself features as the moral compass, who it seems, through the force of his character, almost single-handedly brings this battle to a successful conclusion.
Ross begins his movie in the same time period: during the Civil War, in Mississippi in 1862. But he carries on through the final defeat of the Confederacy and into the period of Reconstruction—and then through flash-forward sequences to 1948 to a miscegenation trial in Mississippi. His movie is about history from below: about poor white farmers and escaped Black slaves, who band together to resist slavery, both economic and based on skin colour, and who rebel against their Confederate masters.
It’s obvious that Ross did a lot of research to make his movie. Again, it's research with a different purpose to that of the Spielberg film. Ross wants to explode some myths about the Civil War. Free State of Jones is not a documentary. Although Ross has structured a narrative to engage the viewer, he's also making a political intervention that helps to link the struggles of the Civil War and beyond to the continuing racism and violence visited on Blacks in the US today.
Uniting to fight slavery
The story begins during the Civil War, in Mississippi in 1862, when a Confederate Army medic named Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) becomes disenchanted with military service and with fighting in the name of Southern plantation owners—who are making themselves rich at the expense of the Black slaves who create that wealth, and also at the expense of poor white farming families who they expect to fight and die to safeguard the owners' profits and the institution of slavery that is the underpinning of those profits.
The character of Knight is based on a real historical figure who helped organize a group of escaped Black slaves and poor white farmers during the Civil War. They came to fight effectively on the side of the North (the Union army) since they realized that they and their kin were dying to protect the Confederacy—which cared little or nothing for they and their families, and certainly nothing for the Blacks who were tortured, enslaved and had families torn asunder by the Southern slavocracy.
We see Newton's radical transformation before our very eyes, when he witnesses the death of his young nephew, still a teenager, being forced onto the battlefield by the Confederacy and casually killed shortly thereafter. Newton goes home to return the boy's body to his mother and is sickened by what he sees: poor farmers' homes, barns and crops being stripped bare by the Confederate army as a form of “taxation” to help the war “effort,” as the plantation owners continue to live in the lap of luxury.
That is the end of the Confederates' war for him and the beginning of a new one for justice and freedom. Justice and freedom for the community of Black slaves who have escaped the plantations and are hiding out in a swamp in Jones County, whom Knight joins with when he deserts the army—and other deserters from the Confederate army, and poor white farmers and their families who are tired of having their homes and farms looted by Confederate soldiers.
One of the ex-slaves becomes a particular ally and comrade of Knight's. His name is Moses (Mahershala Ali) and when we meet him he is yoked by a tall, spiked iron collar around his neck, forced on him by a former plantation owner when Moses tried to escape to reunite with his wife and son who were bought and sold to another slaveowner in Texas.
Newton, a former blacksmith, offers to remove the collar from around Moses' neck but is told that the sound of hammering is sure to bring law enforcement, searching for deserters and ex-slaves. His response is essentially “let them come.” He is able to get a shipment of arms to the small band in the swamp and they are able to successfully fight off the law enforcement that does arrive.
Eventually Knight and his followers leave the swamp and turn themselves into an effective fighting force. The film does not shy away from depicting the taking up of arms on the part of this ragtag band, including women and children, who organize in defence of their land and their right to exist. This includes taking revenge on some of the rich plantation owners who had no qualms about stealing life, land and livelihood from them.
It becomes clear that they can't depend on help from the forces of the North, even though objectively they are helping the North to win the war. Newton and his group are waiting on military reinforcements from the Union Army, led by General Sherman, whose troops are nearby.
Eventually, in spite of receiving no help from the North, they are able to take control of three counties in Mississippi, which is something that actually happened during the Civil War. The title of the film comes from their establishment of an independent country the “Free State of Jones” (Jones County, Mi).
Reconstruction and counter-revolution
But, when the war ends, the free state of Jones is reabsorbed into Mississippi, and Reconstruction begins. Reconstruction refers to the period 1865–77 following the Civil War, during which the federal government controlled the states of the Confederacy, and introduced social legislation including the granting of new rights to African-Americans.
This is probably the most radical part of Ross's film, because it destroys the most persistent myth about the end of the Civil War: that the passage of the 13th amendment and the victory by Northern forces meant enduring and immediate freedom for African-Americans.
This is not to argue that the outcome of the Civil War didn't matter. There is a reason that free Blacks fought on the side of the North in the Civil War—in whatever distorted a form, the victory of the Unionist forces represented a step forward from the slave owners and the plantation economy of the South.
The period of Reconstruction was meant to be a period when Southern plantation owners would be brought to heel by the federal government and where the institution of slavery would be dismantled and Blacks finally freed from slavery.
Here is the director's take on what really happened: "No sooner was emancipation granted by the 13th Amendment than Andrew Johnson immediately began repatriating Confederates, giving them their land and their power back through blanket amnesties that were signed that entire summer. They instituted a series of laws that came to be known as the Black codes, which were draconian and pretty terrible. For example, minor children could be ‘apprenticed’, which was just a euphemism for another form of slavery. Vagrancy laws were put into effect where the freedmen could not venture off the plantation or they would be arrested for vagrancy and then sentenced to work on a plantation. No African Americans could ply a trade without a licence, which were very, very rarely granted. African Americans were not allowed to testify at trial or serve on juries. Their freedom was immediately restricted in what many people consider feudalism, if not slavery."
This is most movingly portrayed in the film through the character of Moses, who is reunited with his wife and son at the end of war. He begins to organize to register Black men to vote but the forces of reaction are already gathering in the guise of organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Again, according to the filmmaker: "Reconstruction didn’t fail; it was killed. Reconstruction ended for a lot of reasons but probably the most prominent one was a counter-revolution on the part of white supremacist groups—a reign of terror, acts of terrorism—that struck back at the freedmen and tried to restrict their ability to participate in their own government, to exercise their franchise. That reign of terror eventually led to the advent of the Jim Crow era. To say that Reconstruction perished somehow under its own weight is a myth; it’s a part of our history that’s sadly ignored."
It's fitting that the movie should point to the future and how the persistence of racism continues to shape the lives of its characters. In a scene that takes place in a Mississippi courtroom 85 years after the end of the Civil War, a descendant of Newton's is on trial for the crime of racial intermarriage.
There has been some criticism of the film, arguing that it's yet again the history of slavery told from a white perspective, or arguing that the problems of poor white farmers are not to be equated with those of Black slaves. But I think this misses the radical nature of what actually happened during the Civil War and of what Ross's film is about.
The film is in some ways a concrete argument for Marx's contention that "in the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded."
It's certainly true that a Black filmmaker might not tell the tale from the perspective of Newton Knight, but it's important to recognize what the movie does achieve. Nowhere in the film does Ross downplay the reality of slavery, nor does he imply that the experience of poor white farmers and that of Black slaves is the same.
At one point in the movie Moses is trying to get his son back from authorities when he has been kidnapped to be “apprenticed,” i.e. put back into slavery. Newton argues he should accompany Moses because, as he says, "they'll arrest me, but they'll kill you." What Ross is pointing out that is critically important is the role that solidarity and common cause against the white bosses and slave-owning class was able to play in the struggles waged in the South.
Free State of Jones is an important film that acts as a testament to the power of struggle from below, a depiction of some of the real historical events surrounding the American Civil War, and which gives the viewer a profound understanding of how the foundations of modern American capitalism are covered head to toe in the blood of slaves and the racism that still endures and must be fought against.