Wow, I just found this piece that I wrote back on August 12, 2017. I guess I never published it, so today, I remedy that…
I finished watching The Free State of Jones this morning. I’ve already talked about this movie in my post on anger, so I’ll just briefly cover the premise here. Newton Knight is a Mississippi farmer who deserts the Confederate Army after the Battle of Corinth and the passage of the “Twenty Negro Law”. He comes home and leads a rebellion against the Confederacy with the help of other deserters and runaway slaves. They’re successful, declaring their county as “The Free State of Jones” and manage to hold out until the end of the war. The third act is mostly about the reconstruction and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
Interspersed throughout the film is a subplot about Davis Knight, one of Newton’s descendants who is one-eighth black and, in 1948, charged with the crime of miscegenation for marrying a white woman. I mentioned that I didn’t really see the point of this, other than to give the viewer somethingnelse to be pissed off about. I’m still kind of leaning that way. I get that race-mixing was (and apparently still is) a big deal there. In fact, in a Smithsonian article I read, it’s an issue that separates Newt’s descendants to this day.
Overall, I thought it was a good movie. I’d have left the Davis Knight subplot out and focused more on how the children of Newton, Serena and Rachel drifted apart along racial lines based on how much of this or that blood they had. That strikes me as more interesting. I already know the South was racist. What I never would have thought of was how this clan would turn against each other. I think they missed a bet with this one.
I also found myself a little irritated at the portrayal of the runaway slaves. Everyone of them is a saint made flesh. Not a flaw to be found among them. I know you have to pare things down to fit everything into a screenplay, but in my experience, if you get three men together, at least one of them will be an asshole. These guys just come off as NPCs, cardboard cutouts of virtue, that just flesh out the scenes. I wouldn’t have minded if they were portrayed a little more human.
I give it four out of five shotgun blasts. It really ought to be three, but I give it a bonus shot because it’s nice to see a Hollywood movie where Republicans are the good guys for a change.
Alright, now that the review is over, let me talk about what I really want to talk about. Racism and slavery.
Charlotte was off at the Farmer’s market this morning, so Tommy watched the second half of the movie with me. He grew more and more uncomfortable as the movie depicted the rise of the Klan and the lynching of Moses, a former runaway slave who registered freedmen to vote during the reconstruction. He was baffled and outraged by the whole thing.
If you think explaining sex to a nine-year-old is hard, try explaining bigotry and racial politics. Hoo, boy.
We know racism and slavery is wrong. We know it. I’m fifty-four, a product of a post-civil rights era California education system. This has been drilled into me from Kindergarten through College, preached to me from the pulpit, and drilled into me through popular culture. I’m a true believer. Thankfully, so’s my kid. Where I see racism as something that needs to be overcome, he’s a couple of generations down that road. He doesn’t even see race, from what I can tell.
So he, like me, looks at the antebellum South as a mystery, an alien culture. The difference is, while I found myself getting angry at these people doing horrible things, he looked at it with bafflement. “Why did those guys do that, Daddy?”
I paused the movie and tried to explain it as follows.
The slavery culture of the South was a self-contradiction. On the one hand, you had an agricultural economy that required a lot of labor and there weren’t nearly enough bodies to do the work. So they brought in slaves to solve that problem. Slavery isn’t something they created, it’s a long-standing institution that probably goes back to the caves, when the first vanquished primitive faced the choice between servitude or being clubbed to death with a thighbone. That’s just how things were.
On the other hand, these people were all Protestant Christians. You can say what you want about Christianity, but from my read of the New Testament, you can’t own another human being. I honestly believe this inconsistency caused a psychological tension in those people that resulted in a special kind of craziness.
You and I know slavery is wrong. But, I would like you to grant these people their humanity for a moment and imagine yourself born into a time and place where it was necessary. Maybe you’re an Egyptian and these Hebrews show up asking for a place to wait out a drought and offer their services in return for a temporary home. Put yourself into the sandals of a Roman with a bunch of defeated enemies that need to be dealt with. Put them to the sword, or put them to work. Imagine you’re a chieftain of a tribe in Africa who, after defeating a neighboring tribe that’s been encroaching upon your territory, gets an offer from some Dutchmen to sell your captives to them instead of putting them to the spear. Maybe this feels like the natural order of things, the weak being subjugated by the strong.
I know. It’s not pretty. Stick with me just a little while longer.
Now, let’s dive a little deeper into this unpleasantness. Imagine yourself born into the South, and everything you’ve been taught was this was the way this is supposed to be. Imagine how such a culture resolved the inconsistency between Christianity and treating God’s children as not much more than cattle. The answer is, they denied these people with different skin their humanity. These, you’ve been taught, are sub-human. Animals.
This philosophy has been drilled into you since birth. Even if you didn’t wind up in a slave-owning family, and most Southerners weren’t, these people of a different color were less than you. In fact, they weren’t really people. Even if you were a dirt-poor subsistence farmer, you were still better than any black person.
I ask you, do you really think you’re better than those people? Be honest with yourself. Do you think you would have the courage to do better?
I’d like to think I would. I’d like to believe I have something in my soul that would give me the strength to stand up to a system like that and take up arms against it.
I shudder to think that might not be the case.
That’s where we see the real heroism in a man like Newton Knight. He stood up. Took up arms. He fought against that system, and they still hate him for it. That’s the part of the movie I liked the most.
The reason this film only got three shotgun blasts is because the third act misses the most important lesson of the story. All heroes are flawed. They need to fail at some point. It’s what reminds us they’re human. A human hero inspires us. We say, “I could do that. Maybe I could even do it better.” The flawless hero is a god, and that’s impossible to relate to. We’re not gods. No amount of inspiration can make us one. Making the hero a god let’s us off the hook.
Newton Knight wasn’t a god. He was a man. His failure is left out of the story.
From the Smithsonian:
After Reconstruction, with the former Confederates back in charge, the Klan after him, and Jim Crow segregation laws being passed, Knight retreated from public life to his homestead on the Jasper County border, which he shared with Rachel until her death in 1889, and continued to share with her children and grandchildren. He lived the self-sufficient life of a yeoman Piney Woods farmer, doted on his swelling ranks of children and grandchildren, and withdrew completely from white society.
The story goes on to tell us of those offspring. To this day, the children of Newt and Rachel don’t associate with the children of Newt and Serena. They hold separate family reunions. It’s tragic.
Newton recognized the truth of the equal value of all human life. He believed in it so hard that he took up arms to defend that belief. He did something amazing. But, in the end, he failed to transmit those values to his descendants.
I have no idea how that happened. I want to know how where he failed. I need to. I don’t want to repeat his mistake. I desperately want to teach these values to my son and also teach him how to pass that torch on to his own.
That’s the third act I wish they made.