Review of Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones

I went to see Free State of Jones on Friday and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s not a perfect movie by a long shot, but it is an important movie when placed in the context of the ongoing backlash against Confederate iconography and the gradual erosion of the Lost Cause narrative of the war that we’ve seen over the past few decades.

You can read my full review at The Daily Beast. Share your thoughts about the movie in the comments section below.

[Uploaded to YouTube on June 27, 2016]

30 comments… add one
  • London John Jun 27, 2016

    I look forward to FSofJ being released in London. Meanwhile, I thoght the James Stewart character in Shenandoah was essentially an Isolationist taken to its logical conclusion.

  • Mattpatt Jun 27, 2016

    Hello. How did this movie compare to the one about the same Union soldiers who “freed the slaves” , are the same ones who massacred the native Americans during and after the war, and then lied about the numbers. Oh wait, I forgot, that’s hush hush. Don’t worry, you will never have to reveiw a movie about that.

    • Glenn Brasher Jun 27, 2016

      I’m guessing Mattpatt has never seen Dances with Wolves or any other post-1990s film about the western frontier,

      • Kevin Levin Jun 27, 2016

        Yeah, he needs to get out more. 🙂

        • Ken Noe Jun 27, 2016

          Heck, you can go back to the seventies and find films that do that. In addition to Little Big Man, Soldier Blue, Ulzana’s Raid, Chato’s Land, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians immediately come to mind.

          • Forester Jun 27, 2016

            I can do you one better than that: “Fort Apache,” 1948.

            This film included a thinly-veiled criticism of Custer, in the form of Henry Fonda’s character, Col. Thursday, who underestimates the Apache and gets himself and his men massacred. It was one of the earliest movies to criticize the US Army and deal sympathetically with Indians. See the pun in the character’s name? Custer was born on a Thursday. 😀

    • Shoshana Bee Jun 27, 2016

      You obviously have not been inside any Elder’s house and seen the DVD collections of this sort of thing. Pop one in and we sit around whining about the past for hours. Actually, the real tribal favourite is “Little Big Man” — now there’s a goodie. Anyhow, ignorance is so unflattering to your cause.

      • Woodrowfan Jun 28, 2016

        I show my classes the “Little Big Horn” scenes from “They Died With Their Boots On” (1941) and then from “Little Big Man” (1970). Then we discuss not only the differences but how the differences reflect the era in which the film was made. I picked those two versions because they’re so blatantly different.

        (FWIW, I saw “Little Big Man” when it came out. I was 11 and already a history geek. It was a real revelation to an 11 year old, and I don’t just mean the scenes with Mrs. Pendrake. The Washita River scene was so unlike anything I learned in class…..)

  • Andy Hall Jun 27, 2016

    “Anyhow, ignorance is so unflattering to your cause.”

    Wilful and deliberate ignorance is essential in maintaining it. A substantial component of “heritage” is making rationalizations for not reading this book, or visiting that blog, or seeing a particular movie. I don’t know what else you’d call it.

  • Shoshana Bee Jun 27, 2016

    I find it refreshing that the movie/TV industry is finally embracing the story untold about the Civil War. First we have the introduction of Fort Pillow in Roots, and now we have “Free State” that portrays the fallacy of “The South felt this” and “The South thought that” about the CW — the South was many people with different and opposing views about the war and slavery. After reading the review, and noting the reference to the monuments (and the story they both tell and don’t tell), I realized that the “fear” of erasing history is merely a fear of a particular “version” of history coming to pass. The actual crime of erasing history had already been committed a century or so ago.

  • Victoria Bynum Jun 27, 2016

    Thank you, Kevin, for your reasoned critique of the movie, The Free State of Jones. I enjoyed the movie and relished Gary Ross’s tremendous effort to introduce a new topic to Hollywood Civil War history–Southern Unionism–while at the same time presenting a well-researched version of Reconstruction that many, sadly, will find unfamiliar. Historians have fought long and hard against the Lost Cause version of the Civil War Era, and frankly it’s hard not to just stand up and cheer at seeing a Hollywood movie that refutes its very core.

    Movies, however, must be critiqued for their cinematic success as well as their message, and you’ve done a good job of doing so. I would just like to add a few historical details concerning Newt Knight’s relationship with Rachel. Director Ross elected to keep that story simple–no backstory on Rachel, no explicit sex, and no in-depth exploration of the relationship between Rachel and Newt’s white wife, Serena, appears.

    That story of the Knight mixed-race community has the makings of a movie in its own right. I deliver much of that story in my book, but it is much too complicated for a blog comment of this sort. For that reason, I’ll address only the question that has most captured the attention of reviewers, and rightly so–whether or not Newt Knight had a long-term relationship, and children, with Rachel’s daughter, George Ann.

    The answer is yes. George Ann was born to a teenaged Rachel in Georgia, a few years before Newt Knight’s grandfather purchased both of them. In 1874, around her 18th birthday, George Ann gave birth to her first child; a second was born in 1875. Some family members claim that Newt was their father; others insist that he was not. There is no proof either way.

    What we do know is that after Rachel’s death in 1889, Newt formed a long-term relationship with George Ann. It is generally accepted that the two children born to George Ann in 1891 and 1894 were Newt’s children. And just as Newt and Rachel lived together until Rachel’s death, so also did Newt and George Ann live together until their respective deaths in 1922.

    Over the course of many years, 1859 to 1894, Newt Knight had children by three women–his white wife, Serena, Rachel, and George Ann. He supported, educated, and openly acknowledged those children throughout his long life. The children were all raised together despite having different mothers. Newt is remembered as an affectionate father and grandfather who deeded property to Rachel and his descendants.

    The story of the mixed-race Knight community is a remarkable Southern history that should neither be romanticized nor condemned, but hopefully understood in its historical context. It developed in a war-torn, white supremacist society that granted white men sexual dominion over women–especially women of color. Yet it must also be seen from within the insurrection against the Confederacy that produced it. That is what I’ve tried to do in two of my books: The Free State of Jones and The Long Shadow of the Civil War.

    If there are questions, I’m happy to answer them.

    • TFSmith Jun 27, 2016

      Dr. Bynum – Thanks for working so hard, over so many years, to bring the stories of southern loyalists and confederate dissidents to the forefront; our nation has accepted enough Lost Cause bilge in pursuit of a failed reconciliation for far too long, and allowed the focus of Southern history to be on 48-months of a failed rebellion despite the 500 years of post-Columbian exchange history that has much more impact on the history of the United States specifically and the Western Hemisphere generally.

      Well done.

      • Victoria Bynum Jun 28, 2016

        Thank you, TF Smith!

        • TFSmith Jul 1, 2016

          YAQW.

          Yep, saw it last evening; very impressed by the film-making and the story that was told, which is a very complex one and not something that lends itself to an easy three acts and a coda type of structure. I have seen some criticism that seems like it comes down to either a) this is not the screenplay the critic would have written, or b) it’s too difficult to follow the two story lines, set eight decades apart, which amounts to the critique that anything more than a linear Setup, Confrontation, and Resolution structure is too hard to follow.

          I thought it was excellent.
          Best,

    • Kevin Levin Jun 28, 2016

      Hi Vikki,

      Thanks for taking the time to leave this comment. I think we are on the same page as to how to assess movies about history. The last thing I want to do is critique a movie based on how I would have proceeded nor do I have any interest in holding such films to strict academic standards. It’s a solid film that took a good deal of risk.

      Anyone who want to know more about this story should pick up a copy of Bynum’s The Free State of Jones.

  • Forester Jun 27, 2016

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the Union also have a way for rich men to buy their way out of the draft?

    • James Harrigan Jun 27, 2016

      didn’t the Union also have a way for rich men to buy their way out of the draft?
      yes, that is correct. If you were drafted you could get out of service by paying another man to take your place (substitution) or you could simply pay the government (commutation). I’m sure others know more about the details behind these policies.

    • TFSmith Jun 27, 2016

      Yes, but very few Copperheads cared enough to rise in armed rebellion over it. Actually, none did.

      Best,

      • Forester Jun 28, 2016

        Wasn’t the draft exception a factor in the 1863 riots in New York City? At least, that’s what they said in “Gangs of New York.”

        • TFSmith Jun 29, 2016

          Maybe, but I don’t think Fernando Wood retreated into the swamps of Jersey and settled down with one of the Dead Rabbits as his common law spouse…

  • Pat Young Jun 27, 2016

    My nephew, also named Pat Young, is a 27 year who teaches European history at a Catholic high school. He told me yesterday that he thought the film was “great.” Intetestingly he liked the post-CW parts the best. I am taking some folks to it July 4 and hope it is as good as he says.

  • Max Terman Jun 27, 2016

    I went to see this movie because of research for a book. To see my review see hiramshonor.blogspot.com

  • Rob Baker Jun 27, 2016

    Just walked out of the movie theater. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. Like you said, it isn’t perfect, but I thought it was very well done. Like Pat’s nephew, I probably enjoyed the post-war material best. I also enjoyed the gruesome imagery of Civil War battlefields; right down to the hogs eating decaying bodies. Striking images, very gritty.

  • Doug Didier. Jun 29, 2016

    I think the 20 Slave law was one exemption per 20 slaves.. Took a lot of men out of the army to handle potential Slave revolts..

    >>Newton Knight and others serving in the army had grown disillusioned with Confederate policies such as the “Twenty Negro Law,” which permitted southerners with twenty or more slaves to remain at home.

  • Rob Baker Jun 29, 2016

    “What the ‘Free State of Jones’ says about whiteness”
    http://www.cnn.com/2016/06/29/opinions/free-state-of-jones-lisa-woolfork/

    Interesting reading in addition to your reading.

  • Erick Hare Jul 6, 2016

    I’m sorry for being a bit late in commenting on your review here Kevin, but I wanted to wait till I actually saw the film before I commented about it. I finally saw the film yesterday with my Dad and I loved it. The battle scenes to begin were more realistic than most films about the war and did a good job of showing the doubts. And fears of soldiers in the war which tends to be lacking in most films.

    I particularly like how the film concisely summarized the primary themes within the film in precise dialogue and scenes throughout the movie. To name a few discussions with fellow poor whites about the unfairness of Confederate conscription, Moses not seeing how one of the white deserters wasn’t anymore of a slave to the planter aristocracy than he was when he was challenged while eating some pork in the swamp. When Rachel apologizes to Meet that he wasn’t able to win the fight during Reconstruction towards the end of the film, and the way the director portrayed the 1876 election in Jones County, as well as the portrayal of the early Black Codes before martial law was instituted in the South.

    While I do understand the concern that once again the main character in a film about the abolition of slavery and racial equality in our country being white instead of black is somewhat upsetting, I think the message of racial equality and struggle to define freedom and liberty in the United States was very clearly portrayed in this film.

  • Shoshana Bee Jul 10, 2016

    Now that I have seen the movie for myself, I thought that I would add a few under-educated in all things CW thoughts:

    I dragged my feet so that I almost missed my chance at good seating, but sadly, at the 9:00am Sunday morning matinee: I had my own private screening. I had the theatre to myself.

    I liked the pace of the movie; it gave me a chance to think whilst still viewing. So many times I go to a movie and I leave fatigued, because I have had no opportunity to digest the content as it unfolded. The sometimes laconic pace of the movie fit very well with the intensity of the content: (any faster and I may have suffered some sort of stress disorder post viewing)

    The swamps. I spent every May-August living in a house on stilts on the edge of a Louisiana swamp (that looks mighty close to those in the movie). It was like visiting with an old friend. The swamps were a place that accepted any sort of ethnic mix, and so there we all were. It was nice to stop by and visit once again 🙂

    The use of stills as a transition point between the end of the war and the beginning of Reconstruction was a superb idea, as it executed a distinct line between the end of one story and the beginning of another. It reminded me very much of the Ken Burns documentary methodology.

    The Reconstruction third of the movie was thee best part of the movie. In fact not only was this the best part of the movie, but it was the best interpretation of Reconstruction that I have seen in cinema. Rather than the usual frustration and confusion, I had a deep understanding and an even deeper emotional reaction to the often futile, sometimes successful CW aftermath that is Reconstruction.

    I have no complaints — only compliments. The only disappointment is that I was the only one in attendance for this particular showing.

    Perhaps word got out that I was attending 🙂

  • London John Oct 17, 2016

    I finally saw FSofJ in London. I thought it was a great film, and its long and sometimes a bit straggly structure is necessary.
    It’s only thanks to reading this blog that I’m aware of Lost Cause ideology and iconography, so I could appreciate what a blow to the Lost Causers some scenes in the movie are. The scenes of southern farm women in their drab long dresses and bonnets shooting at Confederate soldiers are the antithesis of LC mythology; it’s like every shot said “take that, Mort Kunstler!”. Incidentally, the film has the cutest little girls with guns ever.
    FSofJ has been called a “White Saviour” film by some. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair. The first time Newt, on the run as a deserter, encounters the Black people in the swamp they save him. The film isn’t primarily about slavery or abolition, but about the White small farmers’ resistance to conscription and requisition and ultimately to the Confederate State. Knight is shown as a political visionary who sees that this resistance can become an agrian revolutionary, non-racial movement, but initially he’s primarily fighting for White people of his own class. In the downbeat reconstruction section, his revolution doesn’t last: all but 2 of his White followers fall away and he can only rely on the freedmen. It’s because of the freedmen’s steadfastness that Knight appears as the (fairly unsuccessful) White leader of Blacks.

  • Msb Oct 17, 2016

    The movie just flashed in and out of the city where I live, and I caught the last showing before it left. I enjoyed it very much, and was glad the Reconstruction section and the bit about Newt’s grandson’s “miscegenation” were included. The whole movie is eye opening, and I hope it’ll circulate widely on DVD and be shown in schools.

  • Ben Allen Apr 13, 2017

    “At two and a half hours, _Free_ _State_ _of_ _Jones_ attempts to tackle too much history.” Unless Ross stuffed every single detail into the movie, as if it were a book, there can never be too much history. After all, the movie isn’t looking at the time through a broad scope.

    “I would have preferred a narrower focus that more carefully explored the racial dynamics of Knight’s Company as well as the women who fought alongside him during the war.” Then offer an alternative that the director should have taken. How would you have modified the script to make you satisfied in this respect?

    “Unfortunately, the use of subtitles to tell this final chapter derails the movie and gives it more of a documentary flavor…” What is wrong with a documentary flavor? Don’t tell me you don’t like _The_ _Longest_ _Day_! How do the subtitles derail the movie when they correspond to the scenery? To take your assertion to the furthest extremity, it would mean that all subtitles, whether translating languages or denoting locations, derail movies.

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