On Wednesday 5th October 2016 I experienced what I anticipate is one of the films which will feature in the various international awards ceremonies including the Oscars and the Baftas, the Free State of Jones. The film has some historical basis with several academic studies in attempt to establish fact from legend and myth. The film confronts a number of fundamental issues which are at present once again to the fore of political and social on both sides to the Atlantic. It is therefore not a film like to appeal to the majority of people going to the pictures every weekend and on 2 for 1 Wednesdays.
From listening to the conversations which people have on exiting a film theatre and cinema complex, and where it is often possible to hear the reactions of those attending films you have not seen or not about to see, I will assert that the majority go to be entertained, thrilled, shocked horror, see their phantasies realised or imagine themselves in some of the roles portrayed. Only a minority go to be inspired and made to think. Some now go to see if the agree with the reviews of Dr Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo and also to see if they can spot the Director’s deliberate reference to previous films or provide their own.
The story is of the Free State of Jones told primarily through the experience of Newton Knight a small farmer in Jones County in Mississippi. Wikipedia provides the relevant historical information on Jones County past and present. The county is named after John Paul Jones, the early American Naval hero who rose from humble Scottish origin to military success during the American Revolution.
The size of the county is huge given its population with less than 70000 today covering 700 square miles compared say to Nottinghamshire in England of 825 square miles and a population of over 750000. Part of the reason is that the county has a large area of swamp lands which features in story as the place where a mixture of deserters from the Confederate army, oppressed small poor farmers and runaway slaves first hide out and then decided to take control of their homelands. Only a small area of land was suitable for cotton with the consequence that only 12% of the original population were slaves and most of the farmers did not own slaves. This is one aspect of why many of those drafted to fight in the confederate army were unenthusiastic especially as back home their wives and children suffered as livestock and crops were taken to feed the army and those used to in effect pillage and then draft all the men and then the boys.
The story begins with the senseless way wars have been conducted until recently with quickly trained infantry told to attack or defend positions in solid ranks often against superior weapons of in fire power and from cavalry, machine gun, tank, and rocket and in which large number were expected to die, lose limbs and other life changing injuries.
The film centers on Newton Knight who although able to shoot and kill was used as a field nurse (a fact) but deserts in order to return the body of the young son of a relative in law who he attempts but fails to protect. This is fiction and although not a pacifist Jones is said to have argued that a man has the right to determine what he lives and dies for. In fact, he is known to have enlisted twice, returning home with permission in between to assist his ailing father. He is also known to have married before the war commenced establishing a small farm with his wife and children. When away in the war it is said that his sister’s husband took over as head of both families and physically abused Newtons children, and in the film his wife, and Newton on return kills his in law. Factually someone believed to be the individual became a convicted murderer.
This sense of the right to control one’s life and be free is a core aspect of the traditional independent USA citizen, anti-government anti-gun control anti-paying taxes, to follow one’s religion and to make better one’s life. However, this approach only applied to white people which involved the taking of land from indigenous people, enslaving and exploiting all workers and killing anyone who stood in the way of acquisition of land, wealth and power for oneself and family. In fact, Jones was the grandson of one of the biggest slave owners in the county, but is has been established that he was cut from a different cloth in part because of a Baptist background and someone who did not drink and treated women in particular with respect and all those who found themselves in a similar position to himself. It would not be surprising that he stood up for black people given his subsequent relationship with a black woman which led to the birth of son.
One focus in the film and where there is said to be evidence is that he and others were prepared to live in swamp as outlaws and only commenced to retaliate in response to the violence and the thieving and destruction of property by others. Newton was captured, imprisoned and tortured because of his desertion.
What has been established to some extent is that Newton came to lead a significant group of men supported by their families who commenced to control Jones and other neighbouring counties by successfully preventing the taking of food and taxes and so through the use of force in number of recorded incidents described as skirmishes. There are different views whether the group as far as declaring themselves a separate and free state and I do not know if as in the film they were thwarted from this ambition by the failure of the Unionists to provide horses and weapons. The success of the rebellion leads to a force strong counter move and the execution of ten people including two relatives of Newton. The film plays into the justified fears of all local communities, regions and states that the price of joining into larger groupings is always at the cost of losing individual and local collective rights. Interestingly in terms of USA politics, Newton, the unionists and those anti-slaveries in the south supported the Republican Party and former Confederates and slave owners the Democratic Party,
The film is also about the belief that those of white skin are superior to the others and that if one cannot own others as property to used and discarded at will then everything is justified which attempts to retain power and control by other means. The covers the attempt after the Civil war ended to retain slavery a form of low indentured labour, by preventing the right to register and then to vote, and by intimidation and killings with the rise of Klu Klux Klan, burnings, rapes, torture and killings.
The film also centers on his relations with two black individuals one an escaped slave who has repeatedly run away after his wife and child are resold separately take away to another state. After they are united but the husband is hung by the Klan when he successfully begins to gather a number of registration forms
The second is an abused female slave from the major local plantation owner who is able to assist those living in the swamp with food and with information. For me this role did not ring true in terms of the ability to repeatedly travel back and forth and even less convincing although not say such situations did not arise is the attempt to link the relationships between Newtons first and second wives and that it is the first wife who brings up the white looking son created by the second.
The film is interspersed with a legal case 85 years later when the great great great grandson has married a white which considered illegal in local community because he was classified as black although only of one eighth blood. Under the local justice he is sentenced to five years after refusing to disown the marriage but the sentenced is set aside on appeal as unconstitutional.
The reality is in some ways more interesting and challenging. After the ending of the first marriage Newton did marry a former slave, Rachel, owned by his grandfather and cross over between races and within extended families continued in the next generation resulting in three interracial marriages. Rachel Newton has several children by Newton who went onto live to the age of 84 until 1924. One of his sons published a book about his father, The Life and activities of Captain Newton Knight. A great niece also published a book as - An American tale about the Governor of the Free State of Jones. Academic studies were also published in 1984 and more recently in 2003.
I enjoyed the film which was also thought provoking but could not help feeling that many of the issues have been covered before with greater impact and that those making the film were anxious to show they had moved on from recent Oscar night when the lack of diversity in films and performance was highlighted.
Without the monthly subscription I would have paid £7.36 going towards the £17.40 monthly subscription and thus a net saving of £2.72 to date.