I just saw The Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey about Newton Knight, the rebel against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi during and after the Civil War. I won’t really talk about the plot or style of this movie, thought I thought it was excellent. I’ll just share what it made me think about when I walked out and sat in my car outside of the theater. You can look up all the plot stuff and whether the movie was good or not from actual critics. I’ll just say it was very good and then dive into my emotional reaction about Southernness and the past and family history and the tragic South.
What a heartbreaking movie. What was done in the past … dear God. I’ve known of the story for some time, but never read the book about it. My family on my father’s side, the Crosses, were from Jones County and Jasper County. My Papaw used to tell me stories of his grandfather who fought at Vicksburg for the Confederacy. My Papaw’s mother was a Price and her father fought with the 39th Mississippi Infantry Regiment. His father’s father also fought, though I am not sure with which unit. I imagine that my ancestors were aware of what Newton Knight was doing, but there is no record that they joined him. They were proud of their Confederate service, according to the record left on my great-great grandfather’s tombstone. There is so much Southern history that has been buried and whitewashed that is never mentioned. The Cross family lived around Moselle and Ellisville, Mississippi – Jones County. I remember going back there as a kid for family reunions. My Papaw was always proud to show me off to his mother’s people, the Price’s. Just last year, I read about the public lynching that took place in Ellisville in 1919 of a black man. It was advertised in newspapers as far away as Jackson. People came from miles around to watch it and they brought their picnic baskets. My Papaw’s family had lived in the area for one hundred years at that point. I don’t know if he was there, but thousands and thousands of people were. It was a major event. My Papaw would have been 9 years old.
The South has a dark and complicated history on slavery and race and the violence that defended and promoted the caste system that existed for hundreds of years. This dark history is full of things not spoken of and things unseen. I remember as a child asking my elders about events in the past that I read about in history books and that they lived through. But, they said they couldn’t remember. They said they didn’t want to talk about it. They said things were better then and everyone got along until “outside agitators” came and messed things up by stirring up “the blacks.” They were talking about the 1950s and 60s. I wanted to know more, but the past was all locked up. They said they’d rather not discuss it.
The Free State of Jones took place a hundred years before that. My family was there in the midst of it living through all of that. They fought for the Confederacy, though they were poor and owned no slaves. The census records tell the story. On my Mamaw’s side (father’s mother), the Lee’s in South Mississippi, they fought with the 17th Mississippi Cavalry Regiment and they did own slaves – 5 of them. The census records tell me so.
My mother’s family had just recently arrived from Germany and Ireland and were living in New Orleans from around 1850 on. They owned no slaves and did not fight for the Confederacy, as far as I have been able to determine.
It is a chilling thing when you watch a movie like this and the oppressors were not German or Russian soldiers – but they might have been your own ancestors whose blood runs through your own veins because you know they were there. You just don’t know for sure what role they played. Or maybe you are pretty sure you do know. Or not. It is all lost in the haze. There were times in the movie when I wanted to run away out of my own skin.
History is a complicated thing. People don’t always know what they are doing when they do it and they think that they are doing right when they are committing great wrongs. Or maybe they do know and they willingly subvert themselves for their own gain, as Jacques Ellul said. Maybe that is why they try to whitewash it and they defend it so strongly. Or, maybe that is why they just try to forget about it. I am thankful that Jesus redeems and makes all things new and that the evil that happened in the past does not dictate what happens in the future.
And, that is my review of The Free State of Jones.
For more information on the true story behind The Free State of Jones, check out this piece by Smithsonian Magazine. It gives a broader view of the residents of Jones County and the surrounding counties that shows that they were basically against secession at the beginning and that many supported Newton Knight and his rebellion against the Confederacy.