By Christopher Sharrett.
I often show students the opening credits and establishing sequence to David O. Selznick’s garish, appalling 1939 film about the Civil War and the Old South, Gone with the Wind. After the credits, we see a crawl that wistfully mourns a time of cavaliers and gentlewomen, of “master and slave” (that phrase is used without embarrassment), now gone with the wind. The establishing sequence shows a gorgeous plantation, with happy slaves deciding among themselves whether or not it is “quittin’ time” – as if slaves had a say in anything. We also see a fat colored mammy (the very talented Hattie McDaniel), referred to as a “house nigger” in the era. Here she is only too happy to take care of her flighty charge Scarlett. The love story between Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) – could anyone care about these two loathsome people? – adapted from Margaret Mitchell’s flamingly racist novel, is at the center of a film about the hardships of the South in the Civil War-Reconstruction era. The film is still presented as a beloved American classic, marketed in handsome Blu-ray box sets, rebroadcast at regular intervals.
We can’t blame Selznick all that much. Hollywood got a major financial jumpstart from D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), which tells the Civil War-Reconstruction story entirely from a white Southern perspective, which is to say a racist one, portraying African Americans as comical but dangerous subhumans, the Ku Klux Klan freedom fighters for the white race, and Reconstruction a period of terrible misery imposed on the South. There is, however, a Reconciliationist note, with Lincoln portrayed as the “great soul,” as the Blue and the Gray shake hands, blacks firmly tamed, while white America is finally birthed.
Although these two films might be called antiques from another time, they are part of the popular way of understanding the Civil War and what followed, as anyone who watches television knows. Confederate battle flags – the topic of discourse in the wake of white-against-black violence – appear at Donald Trump rallies. The South is still honored for its gallantry, the Civil War a hobby for people who love to study battles or tales of heroic white men on both sides (it makes no difference which). The acclaimed PBS Ken Burns documentary The Civil War (1990) is mostly rubbish, filled with errors (common to Burns) in service of a Blue-Gray lovefest, with the late novelist and white supremacist Shelby Foote its principal talking head. Newton Knight, the main figure of Free State of Jones, is given two sentences, while Foote’s hero Nathan Bedford Forrest, the butchering Confederate cavalry general and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, is given almost as much time as Ulysses S. Grant. The issue of slavery, at the absolute center of the war and the antebellum period, is only now starting to enjoy authentic discussion.
Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones is a good but not great film. It is a needed antidote to the ongoing nonsense about the Civil War that fails to emphasize the absolute centrality of slavery to the Southern economy in the nineteenth century and the reason for the creation of the Confederacy. The North, profoundly racist, ruled out slavery in its states as it proceeded with an industrial economy rather than an agrarian one based on stoop labor. The North won the war, but freedpeople lost Reconstruction in 1876 due to a corrupt election that put the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in the White House – his party kept it, with the exception of Grover Cleveland, until the election of another white supremacist, Woodrow Wilson, in 1913. In exchange for Southern Democratic support of the president, the U.S. army pulled out of the South, where it guaranteed protection of black rights. White supremacy was fully restored – so the Civil War becomes a sad, terrible joke.
The key topic of Free State of Jones is the absolute misery of the hardscrabble dirt farmer in the antebellum South. His/her condition worsened with the arrival of the Confederate government, which imposed confiscation, impressment and a “tax-in-kind” which took ten percent of all farm produce from owners – this was a small price for the wealthy planter class that endorsed the Confederacy and secession, but devastating for the small farmer. This film puts some emphasis (but not enough) on a basic fact – the Confederacy was one of the most totalitarian governments of modern times, for all of its phony association with “states’ rights” (a term popular with racists then and now) and “individual freedom.”
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a real historical figure, was one of those poor dirt farmers who represented pockets of resistance to the Confederacy (often not because they opposed slavery). Knight sees his kin murdered at the awful Battle of Corinth. The film comes close to telling the truth about the war itself – it was extremely gory, more Texas Chainsaw Massacre than the civic pageant often presented. Current research puts the death total at close to 800,000.
Sickened by the carnage, Knight comes home. He has an epiphany that tells him he is fighting a rich man’s war, so he forms Knight’s Company, which provides safe haven for runaway enslaved people. Knight declares his county, Jones, a free state, and hoists the U.S. flag. Black and white join hands in their seemingly hopeless struggle against the Confederate armies of Braxton Bragg and Leonidas Polk. Knight falls in love with an enslaved woman, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), with whom he has children – he is a freethinker, since he already has a family with another woman, Serena (Keri Russell).
The film is effective in capturing the hopeless lives of Southern poor whites during the era – forget black slaves of courses, the subjects of a four-century long genocide. Hardscrabble whites live in shacks barely nailed together, their subsistence always miserable, always threatened by Confederate power, as that government takes away not only food but young children whom they conscript into military service. Those who withhold or are perceived as assisting the enemy are immediately hanged.
A sequence that takes place in 1940s Mississippi is intercut throughout the film, showing a descendant of Knight’s, his great-grandson Davis (Bruce Lee Franklin), on trial for miscegenation due to his decades-old parentage. He is in violation of the notorious “one drop rule” of the South, meaning that any trace of African-American blood makes you a subhuman Other. Davis is about to have his marriage to a pure “white” woman annulled, but the verdict is overturned by the Supreme Court out of concern for friendly North-South relations. This sequence would have made better sense as a coda, possibly followed by more recent events in the South and elsewhere to remind us that the crisis of American race relations has changed little.
The difficulty with Free State of Jones is its insistence on the myth of the white hero and neglect of any allusion to black self-emancipation (this may soon be corrected with upcoming films, like the new telling of the Nat Turner revolt, Birth of a Nation – Griffith will spin in his grave, and I hope with eternal torment). Knight’s courage was real and not to be undervalued. That he is important is made obvious by the number of Lost Cause biographies painting him as a hoodlum and a rapist. In the film, Knight befriends an enslaved man named Moses (Mahershala Ali), who becomes a literate campaigner for black voting rights during the great period of Radical Reconstruction. He is set upon by Southern whites; Knight grieves at his hanged, castrated body. The film makes important gestures, but remains a vehicle for Matthew McConaughey. That said, Free State of Jones is a breath of fresh air during another suffocating summer movie season filled with idiotic children’s blockbusters, and other escapist fare where supermen save the world. We know that Ross’s film has value since a few crack-brained syndicated reviewers have used the word “Marxist” in describing it.
(If you are in need of another quick antidote to pro-Confederate malarkey, by all means see Mandingo , the most unflinching film about slavery and the antebellum era, now on a visually cleaned-up Blu-ray. It was dismissed outright by media tastemakers of its day, like Roger Ebert, Richard Schickel, and Leonard Maltin, who called the film “racist trash” or “exploitation.” In his book Sexual Politics and Narrative Film: Hollywood and Beyond, Robin Wood celebrates Mandingo as an abused masterpiece.)
Christopher Sharrett has taught film studies for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.