Why Free State of Jones Isn’t Just Another White Savior Movie

Many historians agree that Southern whites need a new kind of Civil War hero. Matthew McConaughey’s Newt Knight isn’t a bad start.

Free State of Jones.
Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones.

Murray Close/STX Productions

When I first saw the trailer for Free State of Jones, the Civil War film about Mississippian Newt Knight and the band of deserters he led against the Confederacy, I had my misgivings. We’ve got Matthew McConaughey as a good Confederate now? I thought. Just what we need. But then I remembered my colleague Jamelle Bouie’s argument for a new kind of “honest, and inclusive” Southern heritage, which he made in Slate last year after the Charleston church shootings. “We can work to resurrect and uncover a broader history of the South, to include moments—and people—we’ve forgotten,” Bouie wrote. “There’s room for pride,” he argued, pointing to white and black Southerners like Cassius Marcellus Clay, Robert Smalls, and Angelina and Sarah Grimke, all of whom acted heroically in the context of their times.

Free State of Jones opens this weekend. Is it Hollywood’s latest white savior story—The Help, or The Blind Side, but for the Civil War? Or is it a valuable counter-perspective showing that not all Southerners were equally invested in the slave system?

“Sometimes, especially when I’m talking to students [about slavery and the Confederacy], the first thing that comes to their mind is ‘Well, that was just their time and place, they didn’t really know it was so bad,’ ” historian Vanessa Holden told me. Scattered stories of resistance like the tale of the Knight Company show this not to be universally true. “This movie elevates Southerners to a point of real thoughtfulness, of real reaction, taking an independent stand, looking at a situation beyond just a knee-jerk reaction to a call to arms,” said historian Victoria Bynum, who acted as a consultant on the film.

Bynum, author of The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, runs a website called Renegade South. She is fascinated by Southern Unionists, and while Free State of Jones–related posts have momentarily taken over her blog as interest in the movie has grown, she’s also written about anti-Confederate Southerners in North Carolina and Texas. “Resistance occurred in places where you had large non-slaveholding populations, outside the plantation belt—where slavery still existed, and slavery was even in many ways still dominant among the leaders of the community,” Bynum said. “But where there were far fewer slaves owned and far fewer people who owned slaves. And the resisters were the people who suffered the most on the homefront, and I think disproportionately on the battlefield, too, in terms of being conscripted and having more likelihood of dying in battle.”

Historian Kellie Carter Jackson, who writes about abolition and slavery and also teaches a class on slavery in film, agreed that the themes of class conflict in Knight’s story are important—and rarely addressed in representations of Southern history. “The fact that poor blacks and poor whites have so much in common, but that the currency of whiteness has always been sort of the crux of division between the two groups, has not been discussed at all” in American movies, Carter Jackson said. “In the trailer, Newt gives this speech that has a line like, ‘We are fighting for these rich men, for them to keep their slaves,’ and argues that this war isn’t going to benefit them at all or change their current economic circumstances. I was kind of shocked,” Carter Jackson said. “I thought, ‘This [movie] is going to be something different.’ ” (I should note that neither Carter Jackson nor Holden had yet been able to see the film when I spoke with them.)

At the same time, Carter Jackson and Holden both cautioned against conflating anti-Confederate sentiment, abolitionism, and a belief in racial equality when assessing the actions of 19th century white dissidents. As Holden put it, when you look at the historical record, “it becomes very apparent that while white Americans disagreed about slavery as an economic institution, and one very small group [of abolitionists] really believed in the fact that slavery was immoral, one thing that white Americans on both sides of the line and even within the divided South could agree on was the fundamental inequality of African Americans.” Carter Jackson agrees: “I have to tell my students all the time, ‘There are people who were anti-slavery, but that doesn’t mean that they were pro-black.’ ”

I asked Bynum what historical evidence we have of Newt Knight’s beliefs on race. While, in the movie, Newt asks the white members of his band to accept the premise that they are fighting, in part, so that no man can be owned like livestock, the historical Knight left behind a scanty written record: just one letter, a deposition he filed on behalf of the Knight Company seeking back pay for fighting for the Union, and a newspaper interview he did later in life. We don’t know much about his racial views: Most of our evidence has had to come from secondhand reports or, as Bynum suggests, his actions.

“I think the movie has really moved into the area of what’s probable, what’s possible, but what may not be actually in the historical record,” Bynum said. (Which is OK! It really is.) “What is in the historical record is that Newt did serve as a colonel over a ‘colored’ militia, in 1875, in the era of Radical Reconstruction. He was appointed to be the colonel for this militia by Adelbert Ames, the Mississippi governor who worked the hardest to establish rights of citizenship for freed people. And we have Newt Knight carrying out directives to remove children from the slaveholders who have claimed their labor after the war is over, and returning them to their parents”—a dramatic scene in the film. “We know that his parents chose not to own slaves in a family that otherwise owned slaves. And that Newt Knight carried that on, as well, and did not own slaves.”

Newt’s relationship with Rachel, the young enslaved woman played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw in the film, is the point where Free State of Jones has to do its most delicate work with the historical record. “A trope of the white savior in American film and literature and pop culture is his interracial relationship,” Holden, who studies women and resistance during slavery, said. “White saviors almost always have a First Nations woman who falls for them, or a local woman who falls for them, and this is incredibly important to the trope. And so I’m interested to see what exactly [Newt and Rachel] looks like on film, because interracial relationships in the period can often be romanticized, and the power dynamics embedded in them can often be sort of glossed over for dramatic effect.”

The historical Newt, as Bynum writes in her book and as Knight descendant Sondra Yvonne Bivins details in a series of posts on Bynum’s blog, maintained overlapping relationships with his white wife Serena, Rachel (who was once held as a slave by Newt’s grandfather), and Rachel’s daughter George Ann. The historical Rachel bore a child every two years of her adult life, starting at the age of 14; her first few children, including George Ann, were products of forced relationships with slaveholders. She died at the young age of 49. Newt did publicly acknowledge, claim, and support Rachel and his biracial children—which, Bynum writes, made him somewhat unusual among white men in the area (though interracial relationships were not uncommon).

The film makes this relationship somewhat easier on viewers by erasing Rachel’s first few children, omitting Newt’s involvement with George Ann, and placing Rachel in bondage to another non-Knight slaveholder. Even so, it’s difficult to watch the Newt–Rachel relationship develop. While, as Holden speculated to me, the romance may have been essential to making the point that in fighting for racial equality, Newt was also fighting for loved ones and his future progeny, it’s awkward (to say the least) watching a young black woman who had recently been raped by a white slaveholder fall in love with a white man.

Perhaps the biggest novelty of the film is its depiction of the events that took place during Reconstruction, when Newt and some of his company, living as a farming community, fought racist local government officials, the Ku Klux Klan, and the returned slaveholders who had regained much of the power they lost during the war. The historians I spoke with were excited by this inclusion: “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a depiction of [black-led Republican political group] the Union League in film,” Holden said.

The Reconstruction section of the movie, which follows the Knight resisters from their wartime flush of triumph into the trials of a new white supremacy, also saves the movie from a simple sense of victory. When I asked the film’s director, Gary Ross, whether depicting a white Southern hero would let white viewers symbolically absolve themselves of the sins of slavery, he cited the film’s Reconstruction sequence as an obstacle to that kind of reading. “I don’t think so, because I think this is such an exception,” Ross said. “It’s obvious when you see the movie that Newt’s journey, especially in Reconstruction, ends up being a fairly lonely one. And I think, if I somehow created a mythology in which it seemed as if everybody suddenly was embracing one another with racial pluralism in Reconstruction, that would be different. But I don’t depict that at all. In fact, I depict kind of the erosion of that alliance, and that he is sort of a solitary white voice by the end.”

Free State of Jones resuscitates an extremely unusual story, and for all its elisions and unexplored byways, the movie helps establish a richer history of Southern white identity—one in which there are some heroes to reclaim in addition to all of the villains. “I think the South has been so beat up on: ‘You’re bad! You’re racist! You’re awful!’ And there’s a lot of truth to that,” Carter Jackson conceded. “But I do think we need to be able to find people who were operating outside of that narrative and had a powerful rationale for it. Not one that is solely economic but one that is also based in equality, in humanity. I don’t think we see enough of that at all, and I think that’s useful, to point to a white Southerner who’s essentially saying ‘Black Lives Matter.’ That’s powerful.”