Social Studies teachers are always looking for movies to help bring history alive for students. Many movies look like they have potential but questionable historical validity and outright misrepresentation make them less than useful. The latest entry in the category "Movies You Should Not Show in History Classes" is Free State of Jones.
Free State of Jones is another in a long line of Hollywood White Savior movies. Each of these movies has some good pieces for classroom use, but I am wary of the underlying message. In Mississippi Burning (directed by Alan Parker 1988) FBI agents are portrayed as heroic supporters of the African American Civil Rights movement, which they certainly were not. In Dances with Wolves (1990) we learn about the battle for survival of the Lakota Sioux who see their primary food supply, the buffalo, slaughtered by White Americans. The story in the movie, however, is not their story. It is the story of a White Civil War veteran played by Kevin Costner who takes up their cause and way of life. Much of the movie Glory (1989) is the story of a White army officer who commands an African-American Civil War unit. In Cry Freedom (1987) and Gandhi (1982), the narrators are White newspaper reporters. In Schindler's List (1993), the central character is a Nazi industrialist. Missing (1982) is about an American searching for his son in Chile after the overthrow of the Allende government.
In each of these movies other peoples' stories somehow become the story of a White savior. It does not make them bad movies, and often they stay consistent with the historical evidence, as we know it. The real question is whether these movies distort the past by placing White men played by prominent actors (Gene Hackman, Costner, Matthew Broderick, Kevin Kline, Martin Sheen, Liam Neeson, and Jack Lemmon) at the center of every story. It is an act of cultural imperialism that makes big-budget movies more marketable to White audiences. Remember, they needed a member of the Jarhead clan to lead the indigenous people of Pandora to victory over the greedy corporate mining interests that wanted to rape their planet.
We now have a new Hollywood contribution to White super-heroes promoting the cause of victimized people, Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight in Free State of Jones. The movie purports to tell the "true story" of a Confederate deserter who organized a militia in Mississippi swamp country. The movie militia includes Whites, formerly enslaved Blacks, women, and children. First they fought against Southern forces trying to capture Knight and keep local Blacks enslaved and then against local Whites and the Klan trying to deny freedmen basic human and citizen rights. McConaughey is the outlaw who becomes a leaders and a hero and while technically remaining married to his White wife has a second family with his Black wife.
A review of the movie in Variety describes McConaughey's character as "Kevin Costner in "Dances with Wolves" crossed with a saintly Marxist professor crossed with a white version of Malcolm X" and "little too good to be true." It also dismisses the movie as "pious and stiff-jointed," designed "to lift us up to that special place where we can all feel moved by what good liberals we are."
In the New York Times, columnist Charles Blow charges the movie tries "desperately to cast the Civil War, and specifically dissent within the Confederacy, as more a populism-versus-elitism class struggle in which poor white men were forced to fight a rich white man's war and protect the cotton trade, rather than equally a conflict about the moral abhorrence of black slavery." At one point, Knight supposedly declares "somehow, some way, sometime, everybody is just somebody else's nigger." Blow dismisses the movie as an act of distortion.
The movie's director, Gary Ross, created a website to address historical issues raised by potential detractors. A problem with the movie, acknowledged by Ross, is that although there is documentation of collaboration between White "Unionists" and Black maroons, self-liberators who escaped to the swamps and hills, in other parts of the South, there is no solid evidence that Knight's forces were interracial. This is a serious admission by Ross, because interracial participation in Knight's militia is the core of the movie's message.
A major character in the movie is Moses, a self-liberated Black man, that Ross acknowledges is fictional. Moses is is added to the cast because Ross believes "It would be irresponsible to simply tell a story of white yeoman resistance to the Confederacy without depicting African American resistance as well. The extent to which African Americans were agents in their own emancipation has been too often understated in both historical texts and films." But why not tell the story of Black resistance to enslavement and the struggle for freedom without McConaughey/Knight?
In a time of racial division in the United States, Free State of Jones is an inspiring story of racial alliance. Supporters of Bernie Sanders can just feel the "Bern" when McConaughey says the South is just fighting the Civil War so the wealthy planters can stay rich. And mostly the story of Jones County as shown in the movie is true.
But because the Jones County rebellion was so unique, how important was it? Reconstruction failed because of the power of the Klan and the White elite and because Southern Blacks were abandoned by Northern politicians and industrialists. Far more Southern Civil War veterans joined the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist groups in reestablishing a racist regime than stood for racial equality. That is the true story of the post-Civil War South.
The result was 100 years of Jim Crow segregation in the South and a nation still divided along racial lines. Do we really need Matthew McConaughey's Newton Knight to be the new Hollywood face of the battle to end racial injustice in the United States?
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