Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Free State of Jones

It was just about this time last year that I attended the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Brooklyn with my sister, niece and said niece's friend - so it's sad to hear about Carrie Fischer's passing. 

A lingering cold, assorted holiday shopping and a tricky December work schedule have kept me from seeing Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, but I plan on catching it in IMAX 3-D in the next few days after hearing pretty solid reviews from some fellow sci-fi aficionados.

With the holidays season upon us and the cold winter nights now amongst the longest of the year, I find it an ideal time to catch up on some of the films that time or circumstance prevented me from seeing in the theater earlier this year.

One of the films I truly wish I'd gone to see on the big screen was the summer release The Free State of Jones starring Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey.

After watching the film on DVD the other night, it's my opinion that McConaughey delivers one of the most searing and nuanced performances of his career, in a fascinating story set against the backdrop of one of the most fascinating and yet little-known stories of the American Civil War.

As a history buff, I first heard of the Free State of Jones back in 1990 during the PBS broadcast of director Ken Burn's epic TV series, The Civil War. during episode number 4 titled "Simply Murder", which chronicles the year 1863 - one of the bloodiest of the Civil War. 

FYI, three of the deadliest battles of the Civil War took place in 1863, including the Battle of Gettysburg (June 3 - July 24, 1863) - 51,000 casualties, 7,863 killed; the Battle of Chickamauga in Georgia (September 1 -20, 1863) - 34,624 casualties, 3,969 killed and the Battle of Chancellorsville April 30 - May 6, 1863 - 24,000 casualties, 3,271 killed.

So "Simply Murder" is a truly apt description of 1863 in America.

Ken Burns used the term "The Kingdom of Jones" to describe the vast section of southeastern Mississippi around Jones County where a handsome, imposing 6'4" fundamentalist Baptist farmer named Newton Knight (played by McConaughey in the film) led a large group of ex-Confederate soldiers, escaped slaves and poor farmers collectively known as the Knight Company to revolt against members of the Confederate Army. And with good reason.    

Newton Knight
The Free State of Jones, ably directed and written by Gary Ross, offers an excellent portrayal of how bands of roving Confederates systematically raided local farms and houses to seize clothing, farm animals, food, crops and other personal items from private civilians to provide for the needs of the chronically under-supplied Confederate troops.

In some cases, the lawless seizure of food and animals left poor southerners in states of near-starvation.

The film also shows how the Confederate Army alienated grass roots support by conscripting children and men into armies, taking them from their homes by force to serve as soldiers - and the gruesome manner in which Confederates hung captured deserters in the field without trial.  

The film opens on the morning of the second day of the Second Battle of Corinth, a brutal slugfest pitting 23,000 Union soldiers against 22,000 Confederates which took place on October 4, 1862 in Alcorn County, Mississippi that would result in 6,753 casualties - including 828 soldiers killed over the course of two days.

In the film's beautifully-shot but heart-breaking opening sequence, ranks of marching Confederate soldiers advancing on Union positions are decimated by cannon fire from entrenched Union artillery positions before medic / litter bearer Newton Knight (played by McConaughey) first appears carrying a critically wounded Confederate soldier from the battlefield while under fire.

After glimpses of some of the bloody realities of a Confederate Civil War-era field hospital are shown in graphic detail, Knight is approached by his terrified young nephew, who was forcefully conscripted into the Confederate Army from his home only days before, but fled his unit to find his uncle.

The boy is ill-prepared for war, and while Knight tries to protect him during an attack, the boy is fatally struck by a Union sharpshooter and Knight, unable to persuade one of the over-worked physicians to perform surgery, takes his nephew out under a tree to comfort him as he dies.

Jones County, Mississippi
Pushed to the brink, Knight decides to take the boy's body back home to Jones County so his family can bury him, and he deserts the Confederate Army.

It's there back in Jones County that the film really begins as Knight sees first-hand the hardships faced by his wife Serena, extended family and neighbors resulting from the confiscation of supplies as his opposition to the Confederacy intensifies.

In real life, according to various historical accounts of the period, large numbers of deserters from the Confederate Army had begun flowing into the Jones County area well before the Second Battle of Corinth.

When the Union's forty-plus day siege of Vicksburg, Tennessee ended with a Confederate surrender on July 4, 1863, it effectively cut the Confederacy in half and gave the Union control of the vital Mississippi River for the rest of the war.

Many historians cite Vicksburg as one of the critical turning points in the Civil War, not only did it cut the Confederacy off from using the Mississippi to transport badly-needed supplies, it had devastating effects on the morale of Confederate soldiers - after Vicksburg fell, many began fleeing south from Tennessee and west from Alabama into Mississippi to avoid being recaptured into the war.

As the map above shows, Jones County sits near the western border of Alabama, so not only were disgruntled Confederate deserters from Vicksburg in the area, a number of Confederate soldiers from Jones County had begun to desert from the Battle of Corinth after hearing news of the terrible conditions at home as a result of so many men and boys off fighting the war, crops being neglected and farms and homes being raided for supplies by the Confederacy itself.

So by the time large numbers of Confederate deserters were making their way into Mississippi in the summer of 1863, Knight's group of guerrilla fighters was already pretty well established in Jones County, supplemented with men from the neighboring counties of Smith, Perry, Covington and Jasper Counties who'd organized to protect their farms, homes and kin from Confederate raiding parties.

July 16, 1864 Harper's Weekly image of CSA deserters
turning themselves into Union soldiers 
The Free State of Jones is one of the first major films I've seen that explores the motivations that spurred the southern insurgency against the Confederacy.

It also offers insight into southerners who opposed not just the war itself but slavery - and how some men felt about fighting and dying in a war for slavery even though very few Confederate soldiers actually owned any slaves.

The film has a couple scenes where Knight talks about the "Twenty-Slave Law" with other Confederate deserters.

The Twenty Slave Law was a controversial measure passed in 1862 by the Confederate Congress that created an automatic exemption from military service for any man who owned twenty or more slaves.

On different occasions in the film, McConaughey's character cites the Twenty Slaves Law to discuss why the Civil War was an unjust war being fought for the economic benefit of a handful of wealthy southern landowners rather than for some sense of honor or gallantry.

For example, as the characters in the film discuss, the Twenty Slaves Law also contained provisions that progressively multiplied with the more slaves someone owned, so that the first 20 slaves someone owned would get one man an exemption, 40 slaves would get the next male in line an exemption - and so on.

Knight teaches Rachel (Mbatha-Raw) to shoot a
rifle in The Free State of Jones
That's just one way the film consistently touches on contemporary issues like the futility of war and the massive wealth disparity that are at the root of so many economic problems across the globe today.

While the film portrays Newton Knight as an ardent abolitionist, the story never mentions that his grandfather was one of the largest slave owners in Jones County; but neither Newton Knight or his father owned any slaves.

One of the more interesting subplots of the film is Knight's relationship with a slave from a nearby plantation named Rachel, played in the film by the talented actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw.

Rachel first appears in the early part of the film when she comes to Newton Knight and his wife Serena's cabin to save their son from a life-threatening fever using herbal remedies.

Later when Knight is bitten by a dog in the course of helping a local family fend off Confederate raiders, a sympathetic merchant named Aunt Sally (played by Jill Jane Clements) helps Knight get to a remote swamp so he can hide out with a group of escaped slaves and Confederate deserters.

It's there that Knight encounters Rachel again, and grows closer to her, as she brings supplies to the escaped slaves and deserters, and he also meets an escaped slave named Moses, brilliantly played by actor Mahershala Ali, (who stands out in the Netflix series House of Cards) a character who becomes one of Knight's closest allies and friends.

Keri Russell plays Knight's wife Serena & Mahershala Ali
plays his friend Moses
Knight's relationship with both Rachel and Moses become central to the film, and while Moses was a fictional character, Rachel was real and just like the film, she and Knight fell in love and went on to spend the rest of their lives together in defiance of Mississippi's miscegenation laws which outlawed marital relationships between whites and blacks.

The strength of this film really is the performances by an excellent cast who effectively breathe life into complex characters.

Keri Russell, who is so amazing as an undercover Soviet spy in the FX series The Americans, is excellent in the supporting role of Knight's wife Serena and Bill Tangradi is brilliant as the sadistic Confederate Lieutenant Barbour; those are just two of members of the cast that make this a film well worth watching.

Director and screenwriter Gary Ross deserves credit for tackling a fascinating but complex and violent chapter of American history, one that revolves around some difficult subject matter; including the post-Civil War Reconstruction era when efforts to integrate African-Americans into society including schools and the voting booth, were met with resistance and violence.

So I respectfully disagree with many of the mixed reviews The Free State of Jones received earlier this summer when it was released; Godfrey Cheshire's review is a prime example.

Director / writer Gary Ross
In his decidedly harsh review of the film, posted on RogerEbert.com back on June 24, 2016, Cheshire took what I believe are some unfair shots at the script and direction - both the work of Gary Ross.

The movie tells a complex story that takes place over years during a tumultuous time in American history, it's not something that's easily wrapped up into a tight, easily digestible 90-minute package.

It's a multi-course meal that the audience has to sit down and savor.

The story is fascinating, the cinematography, sets, costumes and production value are all first-rate; so why the mixed reviews and disappointing box office?

I'm not a film or marketing executive who decides these kinds of things, but I think like so many films these days, The Free State of Jones was released at the wrong time of year.

The production company that produced the film, STX Entertainment, originally set a release date of March 11, 2016, then they moved it to May 13, 2016 - and finally moved it to June 24th at the height of the summer at the very same time that big tentpole releases like Independence Day: Resurgence and Finding Dory were in theaters amidst other films like Central Intelligence and The Conjuring 2.

So my sense it that a lot of parents who might otherwise have taken a look at this film were carting kids around to these other films in addition to summer camps and vacations etc. - a lot of people just missed it in the theaters and I think it would have done better being released in late fall or winter when mid-budget art house or independent films with heavier, or more adult, subject matter vying for awards are often released.

Jones & company prepare to repel a Confederate attack
But no matter what date a film is released on the calendar, with OTT streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime, any release is riskier these days because people have so many other entertainment options at their hands - I have a feeling this will become one of those films that finds a "second life" and a new audience who watch it on cable or via streaming.

But The Free State of Jones deserved to be seen by more people in the theater.

Particularly given the divisive racial climate of the summer of 2016.

A period exasperated by unjustified police shootings of unarmed people of color, an electorate divided by political ideology and Trump's damaging rhetoric - this film offered perspective on all those things, and valuable insight into ourselves as Americans.

No just as black, white, male or female, Republican or Democrat (in one memorable scene, recently-feed blacks march into the town hall to demand ballots to vote for the Republican Party), this film took a deeper look at unexplored parts of the American experience that merit closer examination and dialog; and it challenged a number of assumptions too.

As writer William C. Anderson wrote in an article on Truth-out.org, contrary to embellished southern beliefs about southern devotion to "the cause", there were a number of areas across the south similar to the Free State of Jones.

Places where southerners either supported the Union, or opposed the institution of slavery, or the Confederacy's succession from the Union.

Places like Scott County, Tennessee.

A pro-Union stronghold that, as Anderson notes, formed the 'Free and Independent State of Scott' after Tennessee seceded from the Union in June 1861.

In the critical Civil War battleground state of Georgia, there were pro-Union strongholds in the Appalachian Mountains in the northern part of the state.

And like Jones County, Mississippi, after the Confederate defeats at Vicksburg and Gettysburg in 1863, Confederate deserters tired of war sought refuge in the swamps and back country of Georgia - and there were pro-Union militias and guerrilla fighters across the south who attacked Confederate positions, plantations and freed slaves. 

Now I can't speak for everyone, but I was never taught that part of Civil War history when I was in middle or high school; nor was Newton Knight ever on any test question for my history classes.

Perhaps whites who fought against slavery and the Confederacy doesn't fit the narrative that some conservative school boards in America see as a "proper" curriculum that fits their political leanings.

Remember the Houston, Texas school district using a McGraw-Hill history textbook that called African slaves kidnapped and shipped to America "workers" and downplayed the role of slavery as the cause of the Civil War?

If American kids have to learn about the pilgrims, George Washington, Paul Revere, or Henry Ford in school - they should be learning about Manzanar, Cesar Chavez, Dredd Scott, Newton Knight and the Free State of Jones too.

Those parts of U.S. history might not be as easy to digest, but like vegetables they should at least be on the plate. 

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