Free State of Jones

This film would be perfect to use at history seminars in public schools around our nation.

Free State of JonesDirected after a great deal of research by Gary Ross (Pleasantville (1998), Seabiscuit (2003) and The Hunger Games (2012)), Free State of Jones is an easy movie to criticize and a hard movie to overlook. It brings to life dark aspects of our country’s Civil War that many Southerners to this day try to excuse as a battle over State’s Rights.

Let’s get one thing straight from the beginning, namely that the Civil War was fought over slavery, nothing more and nothing less. 600,000 Americans died in that 4-year conflict, and the war devolved into a massive struggle to determine whether African American citizens of this country would be free from their bondage and treated as equal citizens under the law.

As he has previously demonstrated in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and Mud (2012), Matthew McConaughey has emerged as an actor who must be followed.

Here, he plays Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier who deserts to bury his son on the family farm after the latter was killed in combat. In the process, he becomes a hunted man, fleeing through the swamps where he joins forces with other disgusted white soldiers and escaped slaves to try to hold the South accountable.

With a bounty on his head, Knight’s wife (Keri Russell) has to flee. The immensely talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Rachel, a Southern slave secretly providing food to Knight and his men. A personal, longstanding relationship develops between these two, and they end up together long after the war though denied the right to marry given her race.

Though the movie centers on the performance of Mr. McConaughey, Mahershala Ali stands out as Moses Washington, an escaped slave previously forced to wear an iron yoke as he becomes Knight’s right hand man. The movie shines as you watch Knight’s male and female forces strike back at local Confederates after their property is burned and livestock stolen in the attempts to force Knight’s small army to surrender.

The value of this film is found in what it tells us about our country today. Slavery may have ended in 1865, but the subjugation of former slaves continued. Elections were manifestly fraudulent, as everything possible was done to keep black citizens from registering. In that regard, the film reminds us of the efforts being conducted in many States today to impose voting restrictions that just happen to disenfranchise black Americans. While the excuse used is to eliminate fraud in the election process, the actual fraud flows from the intentional attempt to make it difficult for black Americans to vote. This serves as a reminder that Jim Crow, like a vampire, finds a way to arise from the grave to continue its reprehensible destruction.

But while the South was forced to abandon slavery, they retaliated with the Ku Klux Klan and segregation. Lynchings continued in the South right through the Civil Rights marches in the 1960s, and white Southern politicians like Strom Thurmond continued to function as plantation owners in the Antebellum South.

While Free State of Jones spans a period of time stretching from 1862 to 1876, it ends with a depiction of Jones’ son, a white man, who was being prosecuted by Mississippi authorities for marrying a white woman given that his mother was an ex-slave. Convicted and forced to serve a 5-year sentence when he refused to divorce his wife (a conviction that was overturned on appeal to escape federal sanctions), the film is another reminder of the fact that a majority of States in our Union continued to prosecute interracial marriage until the United States Supreme Court brought it to an end in Loving v. Virginia in 1967.

As many of you know, I taught the fifth grade at Public School 87 here in Indianapolis in 1969-70. All of the students were black, and I was the only white male at any level in the school. What I learned is again made clear in this film, namely that we have yet to make meaningful reparations for keeping our black citizens in slavery for centuries.

In effect, we simply freed them and said, “Now do the best you can.” That eventually led to a massive migration to the North, resulting in a continual breakdown in the family culture in our central cities. Our white ancestors destroyed that family structure for centuries, and we owe a massive effort to help black citizens rebuild it, something that we have done our best to avoid.

To begin with, I stand by the proposition that we should have a law passed that requires all public schools in major metropolitan areas to run the entire year, not just 9 months. As an example, most of these kids are on the school lunch program, and where does anyone think they obtain decent food during the summer? Tragically, many of these kids are gradually lost to the street, and keeping them in school year round would help them achieve a meaningful future presently denied.

Following World War II we used the Marshall Plan to help rebuild a destroyed Europe. We owe it to black Americans to adopt a similar policy in our own country, something that we have ignored for the last 150 years.