The abolition of slavery, also known as The Emancipation, in nineteenth century American history was a few hundred years too late in its coming. And when it did come, so brutal and battered was the psyche of the emancipated, and so grudging and insincere was the psyche of the emancipator – particularly those of many in the South – that it would take several generations over several centuries, to truly make sense of it all. Of how the white man who stumbled onto the North American continent could adopt this new land as his own, engage in the purchase and sale of other human beings from another continent, live off the fat of the land he owned, do with his cattle and chattel just as his heart pleased, and all the while claim a divine “manifest destiny” that proclaimed the special virtues of the American people.
But since it would take some time and contemplation to achieve such an analysis, I shall limit myself to offering a more succinct review of this thoughtful motion-picture titled Free State of Jones. Set in the year 1862, immediately prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, the story tracks the lives of slaves who have run away from their grudging masters even as the Confederate Armies of the South ruthlessly tax and steal from every man in the county under their jurisdiction to fill the coffers of the treasury that would finance the duration of the Civil War – that disgraceful and shameful chapter of American history.
Caught in the milieu of this moment in time, is Newton Knight, an ordinary farmer from Mississippi, who is radicalized by his circumstances, and soon evolves as a champion of the runaway slaves. Portrayed by Matthew McConaughey, we see a man with a zealous temperament and yet one in whose eyes and actions we see brilliant strokes of decency and compassion for the suffering. One of the most memorable lines that he utters is, “You can own a mule or an ox, but you cannot own a child of God.” How much more simpler could the rationale for human freedom be?
This is not just another offering by Hollywood about a white savior sacrificing himself on behalf of the enslaved. Nor is it the story of the white man redeemed by the gracious selflessness of black people. This is a story that is careful not to suggest that the conditions endured by disenfranchised whites and enslaved blacks were identical. The system may be rigged against both, but in different ways. Especially after the war, the alliance proves fragile, as white supremacy in the likes of the KKK asserts itself with renewed brutality.
And if all this isn’t shocking enough, there’s another subplot that takes place 85 years after the war in a Mississippi courtroom, where a young man, a descendant of Newton’s, is on trial for breaking the state’s law against interracial marriage.
Goodbye, Slavery; Hello, Segregation!
Free State of Jones ought to be mandatory viewing for every person on this planet, at least every American. Think you know your American History? Think again! This is one harrowing adventure that reveals the sordid truth about the so-called Reconstruction Era and the many evils inflicted upon and borne by ordinary white and black citizens of the day – who remind us of who our ancestors are and how far we have come. Or have we?
High marks all-around for directing, acting, costumes, cinematography, story-telling, and history-lesson.