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Free State of Jones takes on the Civil War, Reconstruction and class struggle

Highlights the need for a alliance between the working class and the Black liberation movement
Review by Dave Schneider |
July 12, 2016
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It's hard to imagine a movie like Free State of Jones coming out at a better time. A little over a year ago, a white supremacist murdered nine Black members of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina, drawing inspiration from the Confederate States of America (CSA) and the KKK. In response, activists battled to tear down the Confederate flag from state buildings and won. All of this took place exactly 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

Along with the ongoing #BlackLivesMatter movement against police crimes and Donald Trump's openly racist presidential campaign, people have no choice but to confront the ugly past of the U.S. in 2016. Free State of Jones does just that and more.

Slavery movies abound in Hollywood, especially in recent years (Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave). I've also sat through my fair share of Civil War movies, which range from classics (Glory, Gettysburg) to almost unwatchable (Gods & Generals, Cold Mountain).

Free State of Jones, however, goes beyond any film I've seen about the era. It dares to look at the Civil War, slavery and Reconstruction in terms of class, capitalism, and the unfinished democratic revolution in the South. While it's outstanding on its own merits, the real value of Free State of Jones is its portrayal of poor white farmers forming a alliance with Black slaves to rebel again their shared oppressors – the rich, white plantation class.

Based on the true story of a people's rebellion in Jones County, Mississippi against the Confederacy during the Civil War, Free State of Jones follows Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who deserts the army after his nephew dies in battle. Like most of the soldiers in the Confederate Army, Knight is a dirt-poor farmer who owns no slaves. When the CSA passes a law exempting owners of 20 slaves or more from fighting, Knight and others realize they are dying on the battlefield to protect the wealth of the rich plantation owners.

“We're fighting for honor,” says one Confederate soldier to Knight in an early scene.

“Well I'm glad you're fighting for honor,” shoots back Knight, sarcastically. “Because I'd hate to be fighting for cotton.”

Hunted by Confederate officers and forced to hide in a swamp nearby his home, Knight meets a community of runaway slaves. Together, they form a people's army of freed slaves and white deserters that wages a guerrilla war against Confederate troops. Eventually they take over three counties in southern Mississippi and secede from the CSA. The new territory is declared the 'Free State of Jones', which is ruled by a set of socialistic principles like “No man should be poor so another man can get rich” and equality among people regardless of race.

First off, Free State of Jones is an incredible war film. It opens with a sobering, stomach-churning battle scene that ranks alongside Saving Private Ryan and Glory. Later in the film, electrifying images of the Jones County people's army battling Confederate troops and raiding plantations etch themselves into your mind. That said, this is unlike other 'war' movies – and frankly most movies, period. Free State of Jones examines war in terms of class and leads us to draw some revolutionary conclusions about our own battles today.

Class struggle is central to Free State of Jones. Knight doesn't desert the Confederate army because he feels bad about slavery or has a moral crisis. He deserts because he realizes his class – poor white farmers – is dying so the ruling class of rich plantation owners can stay rich. The Confederate army forcibly takes crops and supplies from poor farmers, literally leaving them starving. On the other hand, they leave the big plantations to continue making profits from cotton. These poor white farmers don't own slaves. In fact, the wealthy slave-owners are taking over their farms to consolidate their wealth. And even though both classes have white skin, the poor are the only ones fighting and dying on the battlefield.

This is what class consciousness looks like. Knight and the other poor whites realize that they have nothing in common with the Confederate ruling class, despite their white skin. They realize that its actually in their class interest to join with Black slaves and rebel against their shared enemy. It's a alliance between the two groups based on genuine, shared class interests – not abstract appeals to morality – and it proves extremely powerful.

In the early stages of the rebellion, several white deserters continue to cling to racist attitudes. One scene shows a white soldier trying to stop a runaway slave from eating a pig the camp roasted, calling him the n-word and more. The runaway slave defiantly takes his plate of food anyway. Knight then points out to the white soldier that while Blacks worked as slaves, the whites were the ones actually willing to die for the plantation owners. It leaves the white soldier – along with the onlookers – speechless as many consider their own place in the plantation system for the first time.

I suspect this is why critics, especially liberals, have attacked the film since its release. We've watched countless Hollywood movies where wealthy white characters see slavery or racism first-hand and find it so morally repugnant, they turn against it (12 Years A Slave and even to some extent, Glory). It's a perfect message for wealthy liberals to promote because it absolves them from questions of class.

But Free State of Jones makes the argument that the white working class has a material class interest in supporting Black liberation. It shows that class solidarity, not long academic debates or appeals to morality, can and does break down the racist attitudes held by poor whites. That's a message bound to frighten the wealthy.

Free State of Jones breaks new ground in another way too. It's the first modern film to cover the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War. This is one of the movie's strongest points, especially considering the only other major film to do so was D.W. Griffith's racist black-and-white film The Birth of a Nation (1915). Seeing as it covers the 12 years from the end of the Civil War in 1865 to the withdrawal of federal troops from the South in 1877, one could accuse it of cramming too much history into the final 40 minutes. However, director Gary Ross accurately hits the major aspects of political and economic life in the South during the period, rushed though it may be.

The film portrays the plantation owners returning to power under President Andrew Johnson, ending the democratic revolution in the South, and recreating the slave system by another name. Knight and several freedmen read a newspaper together in one scene that explains Johnson's reversal of Union General William T. Sherman's Field Order #15, which promised all slaves “40 acres and a mule.” A montage of a major plantation in Jones County after the war, showing the same supposedly free Black people working in the cotton fields, accompanies a subtitle, “One year after 'Emancipation'.”

When the Radical Republicans, led by Thaddeus Stevens and other progressive legislators, deploy federal troops into the South to enforce the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, we see the rise of Black political organizations, like the Union League. This period, known as Radical Reconstruction saw some of the most revolutionary changes in U.S. history, including South Carolina electing a majority-Black legislature. In the film, we see African Americans continuing to organize, lead marches and register freedmen to vote.

Of course, the social transformation brought by Radical Reconstruction didn't last. Northern bankers regained control of the Republican Party and joined with the old southern landowners to restore 'business as usual’. In 1877, Congress agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South in exchange for Rutherford B. Hayes, a corrupt Republican oligarch, becoming president after a narrow election. Effectively this condemned African Americans to oppression and death by the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings and Jim Crow laws.

Free State of Jones ends on this flat, depressing note. Knight, defeated, agrees with his wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to move north and escape the restoration of Dixie.

“It's not your fault we lost this war,” she says to Knight.

You won't leave the theater feeling triumphant, but no one should. The battles lost in Reconstruction are part of a larger war still going on in the U.S. today. African Americans continue to face a system of national oppression in the South and racist discrimination across the entire country. What are these police murders of Black men and women if not modern day lynchings, complete with phony trials and not-guilty verdicts? A film like Free State of Jones could not be true to the history and have a happy ending.

There are issues with the film, of course. Intermittently, the main story cuts to brief 'flash-forward' scenes of Knight's grandson on trial in Mississippi for violating the state's racist miscegenation laws, which prohibited interracial marriage. The scenes come out of nowhere and frankly add very little to the story.

Many have also criticized the film as another example of Hollywood falling back on the old 'white savior' trope (Dances With Wolves, Avatar). While Knight is unquestionably the main character, the film focuses on him to draw out a class analysis of the Civil War. Free State of Jones examines Knight's life in order to highlight the material class interest that poor white farmers had in uniting with Black slaves against the plantation system. I imagine it will make a great accompaniment piece to The Birth of a Nation, the upcoming film about Nat Turner's rebellion.

In a year where billionaire Donald Trump uses openly racist populism to attract support from white workers, Free State of Jones is a welcome breath of fresh air. I suspect union workers and organizers, especially in the South, will find the film useful as a tool for teaching white coworkers about racism, national oppression and the need for a united front to defeat capitalism.