The Free State of Jones Delivers Another Nail in the Lost Cause Coffin

The big budget Hollywood movies released during the sesquicentennial have all been decidedly anti-Lost Cause. Think “12 Years a Slave,” “Django,” and “Lincoln.” In contrast, more low budget production such as “Field of Lost Shoes” and Amazon’s recent pilot “Point of Honor” have both been disasters on so many levels.

Both of these recent flops attempted to get Confederate soldiers and civilians on the right side of slavery and white supremacy. Virginia Military Institute cadets befriend a black cook or rescue trapped slaves under wagons while slaveowning West Point cadet chooses to emancipate his family ‘s slaves at the very beginning of the war. Unfortunately, we will never know why he made this decision.

Next year, Hollywood will release The Free State of Jones starring Matthew McConaughey and based on the book by the same name by Victoria Bynum. A first glimpse of McConaughey as Newt Knight was released yesterday and I have to say that he looks amazing. Clearly his role in “Dallas Buyers Club” has prepared him physically for the role. Entertainment Weekly outlines the movie as follows:

Set during the Civil War, The Free State of Jones tells the story of the defiant Southern farmer, Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey), and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy. By banding together with other small farmers, and with the assistance of local slaves, Knight was able to launch an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones. His marriage to Rachel, a former slave, and his establishment of a mixed race community was unique to the post-war South.

There is no other Civil War movie that comes close to this story. Inman may have deserted from the army in “Cold Mountain, “but he was not rejecting the Confederacy as much as he was rejecting war and yearning for a woman he barely knew. Dutchy abandons his guerilla unit at the end of “Ride With the Devil,” but a clearly defined war between the United States and the Confederacy was never clearly articulated.

As far as I am aware this is the first Hollywood production whose main character rejects the Confederacy and actively campaigns against it. Producers clearly believe that audiences will be able to empathize with a former Confederate soldier on his own terms. Of course, Bynum’s book tells a complex story so it will be interesting to see how it is adapted as a screenplay.

One concern that I have at this early stage is the potential for the movie to give audience’s the wrong idea about popular support for the Confederacy. Certainly there were pockets of passive and active resistance throughout the South, but the Confederacy enjoyed widespread support long after the point where most observers would have predicted defeat.

Finally, I was asked last night what ever happened to plans to turn a book co-authored by John Stauffer and Sally Jenkins about Newt Knight and Jones County into a movie. You may remember the controversy between Stauffer/Jenkins and Bynum that started on this blog way back in 2009. I have no idea what became of those plans or whether the controversy and reviews of their book had any impact.

What I do know is that Vicky Bynum apparently had the last laugh.

21 comments… add one
  • Jimmy Dick Mar 10, 2015

    Can’t wait for the Neo-Know Nothings to freak out over this movie.

  • Pat Young Mar 10, 2015

    Good for Vicky Bynum. It is nice to see great scholarship rewarded.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2015

      That’s exactly right.

    • Jamie Shows Mar 10, 2015

      You are exacly right, Pat Young. Vikki’s journalistic integrity, regarding the events in Jones County, Mississippi events so long ago, is beyond reproach. She had family on both sides of the conflict and you cannot find bias from her towards either side in her book. She gave us the recipe without adding anything from her own spice cabinet.

  • Ryan Semmes Mar 10, 2015

    Victoria Bynum will be presenting at this year’s Marszalek Lecture Series at Mississippi State University March 18, 2015 at the Mississippi State University Libraries http://www.msstate.edu/web/media/detail.php?id=7112

  • Mary Ellen Maatman Mar 10, 2015

    The story of the Free State of Jones is so fascinating. I hope the movie does it justice.

  • James F. Epperson Mar 10, 2015

    I’m looking forward to seeing this—I hope they do the book justice.

  • renegadesouth Mar 10, 2015

    Thank you for introducing the upcoming movie, Kevin. I just visited the set last week (and got to make my acting debut in a brief cameo role) and liked what I saw–Matt McConaughey is one smokin’ Newt Knight!

    Yes, Free State of Jones will deliver a direct and much-needed assault on Lost Cause versions of the Civil War.

    A clarification: Director Gary Ross has written an original screenplay, meaning that the movie is not “based on” any one source. They’ve titled it after my book, and my name will appear in the credits.

    Vikki Bynum
    Renegade South

  • Robert Moore Mar 10, 2015

    Frankly, I think it’s best to withold enthusiasm till we see an end product. Yes, Vikki is being consulted, but how often do we see “production” take precedence over history? What’s more concerning is that there are some who are more obsessed with the thread count in stitches than what the average/typical person will take from the movie. It’s much more important to see people walking out saying, “I never realized how complex the story of the wartime South/Southernersactually is.”

    • Kevin Levin Mar 10, 2015

      Hi Robert,

      I completely agree and I hope that my post reflects this fact. As you know all too well it’s a complex story.

    • Jerry McKenzie Mar 11, 2015

      Indeed. The Field of Shoes movie had the author of the book as a consultant and he thought the end result was terrible.

  • Jerry McKenzie Mar 10, 2015

    That’s the dirty secret of the Lost Cause: not even all the whites were onboard the Confederacy train wreck. A nice little essay about it is here:

    http://www.dailykos.com/story/2011/04/11/966022/-The-Truth-About-the-Confederacy?via=sidebyuserrec

  • Ben Allen Mar 10, 2015

    I have a feeling Hollywood would not be shooting this movie had “12 Years a Slave” not been so successful. 🙂

    “One concern that I have at this early stage is the potential for the movie to give audience’s the wrong idea about popular support for the Confederacy.” It is hard for a movie on Jones County’s insurrection within a larger rebellion to not leave the audience with that impression. Historical movies only work if (a) there is a narrative and (b) its focus is narrow. In other words, broad social histories do not make good movies. Unlike historians and books, characters can only rarely identify larger truths. I am unsure if Knight knew that he and his group were in a decided minority. The story of Jones County is so unique that some audience members are very likely to leave the theater with the wrong impressions no matter what the makers do.

  • Rob Baker Mar 10, 2015

    I don’t know Kevin. Matthew’s character is carrying a Mississippi Rifle but an Enfield Bayonet. Looks like a Farb fest. 😉

  • Ira Berkowitz Mar 11, 2015

    Based on IMDB the studio is investing significantly in the production ($65m) with an impressive cast beyond Mr. McConhaughey. Looks like it will be a fun movie.

  • Mike Musick Mar 12, 2015

    Rob: Yeah, but he’s got a period infantry horn emblem on his forage cap, rather than modern crossed rifles, so there may be some hope yet!

  • Rick Ates... Sep 5, 2016

    My gg uncles James and Thomas Ates were with Newt…They were captured by Col Lowery’s men, given a military trial for desertion, violating military rules and resisting with arms…They were hanged the next day…I thought the movie was very good. and I’m glad I didn’t have to watch my ancestors getting hung…

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