We all know about the Civil War from American history class. We know how 11 slave-holding states broke away from the Federal government and created the Confederacy, waging war with the Union from 1861 to 1865. It was a conflict between the industrial free states and the agrarian slave ones, North versus South, blue against gray.
What history class might’ve failed to mention, though, is that there were shades of gray in the South, with some shading toward blue. Not every Southerner fell in lockstep line behind Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and the rest. Some wanted nothing to do with the Confederacy.
Newton Knight is one of them.
Newton serves in the Confederate army, shuttling the injured from bloody battlefields to screaming hospitals behind the lines. He has no slaves. He grows no cotton. He cares not a whit for states’ rights or Southern honor. He’s part of the war effort because President Davis told him he had to be.
But when Newton’s young cousin—still a boy, really—dies in his arms, he decides Jeff Davis has no claim on him. He takes the boy’s body back to his ma and returns to his Mississippi farm, deserting from the Southern cause, a crime subject to hanging.
When the Confederate army pursues him, Newton escapes to the Mississippi swamps, aided by a small band of runaway slaves. And as time goes by, some of his friends join him. Soon, the swamp is teeming with scores of fellow deserters and their families, a motley bunch of men and women tired of fighting for rich slaveholders and watching their crops picked clean by soldiers.
It’s not long before Newton hatches a crazy idea: Why not rebel against the rebellion? Why not create a free state in slaveholding Mississippi? Maybe he and his 19th-century merry men can build a humid little Utopia in these Southern lands—a Utopia built on families being able to reap what they sow, where every man is truly free.
“You cannot own a child of God,” Newton Knight says.
The real Newton Knight died in 1922 at the age of 84. “He lived for others,” his gravestone reads. And while Free State of Jones takes dramatic liberties with Knight’s life, that core characteristic shows up again and again.
When Newton’s young cousin arrives at the front, Newton promises to help him get back home. Even when the boy dies, Newton holds himself to that promise, deserting the army to take the body back. Once home, he defends otherwise helpless farms from the onerous “taxation” the Confederate army exacts from the South’s citizens, taxes that families say would leave them with nothing, starving to death come winter. Newton befriends and leads his “company” in the swamp—made up of both whites and blacks—honoring escaped slaves as fellow children of God despite the stubborn racism of some of the company’s members.
He’s not the only admirable character, of course. Moses, an escaped slave, is one of the first people to befriend Newton. And when the war ends and the Reconstruction begins, Moses works tirelessly to register fellow former slaves to vote, promising that they’re heading into a new season of hope and equality. (That his optimistic take proved to be wrong in most of the post-Reconstruction South does not diminish Moses’ optimism and goodness.) The fact that Moses had so many reasons to be filled with hate but never succumbed to bitterness, Newton tells God, “is one of Your greatest miracles.”
During the Reconstruction, Moses’ son is kidnapped and sent to work in the cotton fields of a sprawling plantation, as if the war had never been fought to free slaves. When Moses tramps off with a gun to rescue him, Newton pursues him and promises to help but warns Moses to stay cool. “They’ll arrest me,” he says. “They’ll kill you.” In the end, they go to court for the boy’s freedom. But when it looks like they’ll lose the case (because the son is now considered an “apprentice,” and thus bound to the plantation), Newton slaps down $70 of his own money to buy the boy’s freedom again.
The Civil War and the years following were exceptionally spiritual times, and Free State of Jones reflects what a powerful, often positive force the Christian faith could be.
Moses, who chose his name himself based on that biblical figure, is the first in the movie to say that children of God cannot be owned. The freedoms in Newton’s “free state” (based in Jones County, Miss.) are constructed upon an explicit biblical foundation: A version of Galatians 6:7, “Whatever one sows, that will he also reap,” is read aloud as justification to keep Confederate corn collectors off private property. Newton’s friend, Jasper, paraphrases Ezekiel 7:19 as a solemn warning to the South’s rich elite: “All their gold and all their silver won’t protect them from the wrath of the Lord.” Rachel, a slave and Newton’s future significant other, runs away from her masters in part because she’s learned to read the Bible and (it’s suggested) because she has developed a better understanding of her self-worth.
As Newton’s young cousin lies dying, the older man reminds him where he’ll be going (even as Newton also tries to reassure the boy that he’s not going to die). “You love God, don’t you?” Newton asks. “You love God, and God loves you. Jesus loves you.” When a former slave is killed, Newton leads the gravesite ceremony. “All he ever wanted to do was get [to a better place],” Newton says. “And now he is.”
Other people pray and pay homage to God. There’s a vicious shootout in a churchyard. Someone is killed inside an empty church. An African-American sanctuary is burned to the ground by the KKK.
Rachel has been repeatedly sexually abused by her owner. We never see these attacks, but we do hear her talk about the assaults. She tells Newton that she typically pretends that she’s somewhere far away during the acts. We see her wince at the touch of her slavemaster. She bursts into tears when Newton leads her into a hotel room and she touches the feather bed inside, likely recalling the assaults she’d been subjected to.
Rachel and Newton clearly become a couple (a relationship that could not be consummated in any legal way, given the laws against interracial marriage in Mississippi). We do not see them kiss, but they do tenderly touch a few times. And when Newton’s estranged first wife shows up unexpectedly at Newton’s farm, she’s given a place to stay on the property … but not in the home that Newton and Rachel share.
Free State of Jones begins in wartime, and the movie does not allow viewers to forget the awful cost of martial conflict. Confederate soldiers march toward a Union line, many of them knowingly to their doom. The leader is gorily shot in the head. Others fall in a hail of bullets. Corpses are strewn across the ground—some of them being stepped on by advancing soldiers. One has most of his face blown away.
Behind the lines, makeshift hospitals are filled with screams and blood. A surgeon works furiously at sawing off someone’s limb (only the blade is seen, moving back and forth). Arms and legs are stacked in a pile. Wounds are wincingly stitched, bandages saturated with blood. When women try to mop the floors, the water is so sanguine that it turns the floors crimson.
Other battles, both formal Civil War skirmishes and fights behind the lines between Confederates and Newton’s company, are seen as well. People, including women, are shot, often accompanied with a bloody stain in chest or brow. Someone is strangled, then dragged by his neck to be greeted by a cheering gathering. (The body is later displayed on a table.)
A man is lynched. We see him hanging from a branch, his pants pulled down around his ankles, blood dripping down one of his bare legs. His face stares blankly at the person below. Elsewhere, Confederates hang three or four people for treason, including children. We don’t see the actual executions, but we do see their bodies hanging from a tree. Rachel suffers wounds on her back (bloody strips stain her dress), likely from a whip after she resisted her slave-owning assailant.
One s-word, four uses of “d–n” and perhaps a dozen or so uses of the n-word. One man exclaims “sweet Jesus,” but whether he’s using it as a profanity or a quick, startled prayer is unclear.
Whiskey is occasionally used as currency. Newton promises a swig of good liquor as a reward for a job well done, and a Confederate colonel promises a shipment of good whiskey from Boston to a tavern owner if she cooperates with him. (He looks and sniffs unappreciatively at the liquor she has on hand.)
Obviously, Newton and his crew disobey the government at hand, refusing to pay taxes and sometimes threatening, or even killing, Confederate soldiers. Of course, the Union would argue that the Confederate government itself was blatantly illegal, and that Newton’s resistance constituted true patriotism.
Despite the acting chops of Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey, Free State of Jones is a sometimes ponderous movie that left me feeling more tired than inspired by the end. It spans more than a decade during the Civil War and the ensuing Reconstruction, and McConaughey ages visibly during the course of the film. I think I might’ve, too. The problematic content didn’t help matters, of course. The opening sequence, full of blood and bodies and the terrors of war, might’ve been true to history. But it was horrific nonetheless.
That could be said of many of the infrequent-but-intense moments of bloodshed we see in the film: It’s not exactly gratuitous, but most of it’s not necessary to tell the story at hand, either. And given how restrained the film was in other areas, the brutality we see on the battlefield can feel particularly jarring.
But beneath rivulets of blood and lugubrious storytelling are beautiful messages about freedom, equality, self-reliance and the faith that undergirds it all. While the real Newton Knight was a complex historical figure, McConaughey’s Knight is (more often than not) a hero ahead of his time. It’s as if he took the preamble of the Declaration of Independence—that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”—and made it his firm (though sometimes violent) credo. When he and his company establish their “free state” headquarters in Jones County, the basic equality of all men is one of its founding principles.
“Every man’s a man,” he says. “You walk on two legs, you’re a man. It’s as simple as that.” It’s a lesson that, even today, we sometimes forget. And it’s a lesson that Free State of Jones illustrates with violent-yet-virtuous intensity.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.