Tuesday, December 6, 2016

I’ve Been Jonesing

I was looking forward to seeing Free State of Jones in the theater since I first heard about it, but life intervened and I missed its brief visit to my city. Now that it is out on DVD, I finally got to see it.

It's excellent except ... It feels pretty white savior-y even though we see frequently blacks saving or helping the protagonist, Newton Knight. He is still the charismatic strategist who helps everyone else - both black and white - a lot more, so the mutual aid is often lopsided. In fairness, the film is following the folk hero story format and you are not likely to see a version of Robin Hood where Little John, Friar Tuck, and Maid Marian accomplish or contribute as much as the title character - although that would be awesome.

I don't like the heroic leader trope, but I understand the decision given the Robin Hood angle. 
(1) In this historical context though, it makes the white savior flavor a lot harder to avoid. What worked in Sherwood Forest, does not work so well in Jones County. And there are a few scenes where we see him supervise others work with a gun slung over his shoulder and it feels a bit overseer-ish (although these are with poor white farmers). Yo, Robin Hood Jesus, put down the shotgun and help shuck that corn y'all stole.

Granted, the supporting characters are not just opportunities for the hero to be heroic or define his sense of right and wrong. They are strong, smart characters in their own right, not cardboard cutouts. They are tantalizingly fleshed-out and brilliantly acted. And yet Newton Knight so totally dominates the story that we don’t see enough of them. This might be the unfortunate side effect of time constraints. You want this to be a miniseries instead of shoehorned-into one ambitious film. After all, it covers events from 1862 to 1876, plus flash forwards to the trial of one of his descendants. And you definitely get the impression that director Gary Ross is trying to show as much of the cast as he can. He clearly wants to explore their stories more. And yet, at the end of the day, the film is not about the community but its violent Messiah.

Newton Knight starts out with a class critique of the Southern plantocracy, calling Southern Secession “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” which, of course, it was. Knight is not a bigot to begin with, but race is not initially on his radar either: Other poor whites were his focus. But he pretty easily incorporates race into his analysis as he is forced to hide with escaped slaves in the swamp. He realizes that slaves and poor whites are in similar boats, if not quite the same one.(2) We see the disgusted army deserter initially helping other poor white farmers fight off corrupt Confederate tax collectors and he winds up leading a biracial rebellion against a rebellion. After the war, he helps blacks vote during the Reconstruction.

This is not the standard dramatic Hollywood story where the hero agonizes over something, sees the errors of his ways, and works toward atonement. Instead, it is a pretty brisk, low-key evolution. We see an amazingly kindly person who was always quick to help others realize there is a larger circle of folks he must help. Knight has no economic or psychological investment in white supremacy to prevent him. There are no old inner demons to grapple with – just a new logical corollary to his preexisting core beliefs.

Knight is deeply religious, and yet the film interestingly avoids a thematically predictable, full-blown conversion narrative where his political awakening echoes a previous religious one. We don’t see the sinner become a saint. The takeaway is clear – and ironically secular: If you are a decent independent person, i.e. not an indoctrinated bigot, common sense and evidence inevitably take you to Knight’s conclusions.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a forced march story-wise, but it is absolutely historically accurate in terms of the societal dynamics and the larger contours of the story(3) and, again, different from what you typically see on screen, so props for that. Paradoxically though, Knight comes off as almost too saintly as a result because he is a pretty perfect hero from the start.

Except he is and he isn’t. Newton Knight is animated by righteous indignation. Yes, he is angelic to the oppressed, but he will take a bowie knife to your throat if you are an oppressor. Sometimes he is forgiving and merciful, other times not. He is as brutal as he is gentle and Matthew McConaughey does a great job of credibly portraying this contrast. Newton Knight is not Thomas Merton, but Jesus Christ chasing the money changers out of the temple – except with a shotgun instead of a whip. 

Some reviewers mocked the character as impossibly enlightened, but why is it so difficult to imagine such a figure? John Brown was just one of many militant abolitionists back then - hence the bloody dress rehearsal for the Civil War fought in Kansas and Nebraska which Brown participated in. Newton Knight is a similar figure. And likewise he is the tip of the iceberg. I had first learned about the Free State of Jones from reading James W. Loewen's eye-opening book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. As Lowen explains, it was one of many such revolts: 
As early as December 1862, Pres. Jefferson Davis denounced states' rights as destructive to the Confederacy, The mountainous counties in western Virginia bolted to the Union. Confederate troops had to occupy east Tennessee to keep it from emulating West Virginia, Winn Parish, Louisiana, refused to secede from the Union. Winston County, Alabama, declared itself the Republic of Winston. Unionist farmers and woodsmen in Jones County, Mississippi, declared the Free State of Jones. Every Confederate state except South Carolina supplied a regiment or at least a company of white soldiers to the Union army, as well as many black recruits. Armed guerrilla actions plagued every Confederate state. (With the exception of Missouri, and the 1863 New York City draft riots, few Union states were afflicted with such problems.) It became dangerous for Confederates to travel in parts of Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. The war was fought not just between North and South but between Unionists and Confederates within the Confederacy (and Missouri). By February 1864 President Davis despaired: "Public meetings of treasonable character, in the name of state sovereignty, are being held." Thus stales' rights as an ideology was contradictory and could not mobilize the white South for the long haul. (Page 183)
... In part owing to these contradictions, some Confederate soldiers switched sides, beginning as early as 1862. When Sherman made his famous march to the sea from Atlanta to Savannah, his army actually grew in number, because thousands of white Southerners volunteered along the way. Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of the Confederate army opposing Sherman disappeared through desertion. Eighteen thousand slaves also joined Sherman, so many that the army had to turn some away. Compare these facts with the portrait common in our textbooks of Sherman's marauders looting their way through a united South! (Page 184)
As I wrote before, the Confederate states had unquestionably seceded to preserve slavery. But that does not mean the populations of those states had supported the war effort or its root cause. You can find numerous books debunking the "Solid South" narrative. In addition to three-different-books on the Free State of Jones, there's Victoria E. Bynum's book The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. Looking at the states of North Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas, she shows us "Unionist supporters, guerrilla soldiers, defiant women, socialists, populists, free blacks, and large interracial kin groups that belie stereotypes of Southerners as uniformly supportive of the Confederate cause." Jesús F. de la Teja has edited a collection of essays focusing on Texas entitled Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance: Other Sides of Civil War Texas. If you are interested in this history, Smithsonian Magazine's article on the Free State film is a good place to dip your toes into the material.

I worry that the film makes the Free State of Jones feel too unique: As the evidence above shows, similar insubordination was found throughout the South. It's a common problem with historical movies. Likewise, the World War I movie Joyeux Noel (2005) gives the impression that the 1914 Christmas Truce was an isolated incident rather than a widespread phenomenon seen sporadically along the trench lines from the North Sea down to the Alps. It's an inherent hazard of drama's emphasis on its characters - especially if the characters themselves have no knowledge of parallel events happening elsewhere.

I'm not knocking the movie. For all its faults, I enjoyed it. Moreover, it's important. It gives Southern whites real heroes, which can help wean them from the ones of their parents and grand parents. And, of course, the 
unreconstructed neo-confederate coelacanths at the Abbeville Institute hate it.

I cannot give a higher recommendation than that.


(1) I prefer stories that spread the wealth screen time-wise. This isn’t just an ideological tick of mine. It just seems more realistic – especially if you have studied historical movements. In Land and Freedom (1995), set during the Spanish Civil War, there is a fascinating scene where an anarchist militia debates whether to abolish property after liberating a village from Franco’s fascists. Teams of equals argue, which is why the group Avengers movies are more interesting that the solo ones and Captain America: Civil War is the best one yet. After all, it has the most Avengers in it. Stories come from conflict and more characters mean more motives in play. More band for your buck means more bang for your buck. 

(2) To its credit, the film both compares and contrasts to avoid drawing a false equivalency. When rescuing a freedman's "apprenticed" - i.e. abducted - son, Knight tells the father, "They will arrest me - they will kill you." Parallels with poor whites aside, the film does not forget that blacks lived in considerably greater danger. Their situations were similar, yet not the same. But they definitely shared the same enemy. A century later, that remains unchanged as working whites still vote against their economic interests.

(3) Some liberties were taken with the historical record insofar as individual characters were concerned. For example, As the director admits, Newton Knight did not have a nephew who died in his arms triggering his desertion from the Confederate army. Likewise, Moses Washington, the escaped slave he befriends in the swamp is a vehicle for showing many things that many slaves experienced. He is what is called a “composite character.” It's a standard practice in historical films.