Monday, July 4, 2016

Mississippi John Brown

“The Free State of Jones,” directed by Gary Ross, 2016

This film is somewhat freely adapted from the book of the same name (reviewed below) that told the hidden story of the South during the Civil War.  The story is one among many that shows that the myth of southern nationalism was just that –  a weak ideology promoted by the planter class and economically based on slave plantation labor, not on free labor or individual farming.  Counties and areas in nearly every slave state – Florida, Texas, Tennessee, North & South Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana and here, Mississippi – were in rebellion against the war.  Newton Knight and his comrades liberated almost 3 Mississippi counties - Jones, Jasper & Covington - from Confederate control, Jones County being at the center of their temporary ‘free’ state. 
Grave of Newton Knight
This film will open the eyes of many people unaware of this aspect of Civil War history, or the dark history of Reconstruction itself.  It is a class view of the Civil War, not a ‘regional’ or slavers’ view. 

Knight himself was a Primitive Baptist and owned no slaves, nor did many in these piney woods counties that contained many swamps and streams.  Knight and his fellows were drafted into the Confederate Army and were camped in Corinth, Mississippi during the bloody battle of the same name.  The news reaches them that anyone with 20 slaves could exempt one of their sons from serving in the Confederate army, and the more slaves you had, the more sons you could exempt.  As Knight puts it, they are fighting a ‘rich man’s war.’ Which sounds like Vietnam and every war since, with little shits like George Bush hiding in the National Guard while claiming patriotism. “Why fight for another man’s slaves?” Knight asks.  Quite right. 

Knight deserts back to Jones County, the main reason to bring back the body of a young relative killed in Corinth to his mother. He meets his white wife (who had left him) and they nurse their child back to health with help from a black slave, Rachel. His neighbors tell him about the depredations of the official Confederate foragers and recruiters, who impress men into the army and take much more from poor local citizens than the allowed 10% of corn, hogs and anything else they can grab. He stands up to a group of them, then disappears.  Desertion can be punished by death, so eventually Knight ends up hiding in the swamp with a group of black men who have run away from their owners.

It is a small camp of black slaves and white small farmers.  Knight’s religion tells him that all men are men, and he does not look down on black people.  Eventually more slaves and deserters join the men and the camp grows.  At a certain point, critical mass is reached and all the men decide to confront the Confederates with arms.  After several armed or violent confrontations (which are not all historically based) with the local Confederate commanders and their white slave-owner allies, they take over Ellisville, Mississippi and the bulk of 3 counties.  They ask for aid from Sherman, but only some rifles come. Knight and his neighbors go ahead anyway and proclaim a “Free State of Jones” that abolishes slavery, gives anything grown to the man who grows it (share-cropping and foragers be damned) and several other populist planks.  The Stars and Stripes fly over Ellisville.  A whole Confederate brigade marches on Ellisville after a time and the rebels go back to hiding in the swamps.   Then they hear the war is over.

Knight has to fight simmering ethnic hostility against the blacks by some of the most backward whites.  At this point he has a relationship with that black woman, Rachel, who earlier cured his own child of pneumonia and later led him to the hidden camp.  She is a slave on one of the biggest owner’s plantations.  After the war, Knight and his black lover and former white wife move into the woods as far from these ex-Confederates as he can get, and a ‘mystery’ of the part black/part white boy begins. Newton and Rachel have a mixed child, which was illegal in racist Mississippi. He also deeded Rachel his 160 acres after his death, so she became one of the larger black landowners in Mississippi!  The trial of Knight’s mixed son for miscegenation (trying to marry a ‘pure’ white woman) in the 1960s plays counter-point in the film to the historical scenes, indicating that under Jim Crow 100 years later, nothing much has changed. 

Rachel & Newton
Reconstruction follows the end of the war and Knight is one of the few white men who vote Republican.  The film shows scenes of black people attempting to vote at the point of a gun at polls run by former Confederates officers, while white landowners do their best to replicate the conditions of slavery by impressing black boys as ‘apprentices.’   These anti-democratic crimes led to Northern troops occupying the Confederacy to guarantee the ballot to blacks.  What is not shown is the subsequent interregnum of mostly black and Republican rule in the South, as schools were developed for black people and blacks could own land.  After all, slaves outnumbered the whites!  Then the northern capitalists got sick of having troops in the South and the Klan (the Confederate Army in sheets) and former planter aristocracy came back into power through violence and terror.

Viewers know the rest.   

Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, which may attract movie-goers, though you never forget you are watching the self-obsessed McConaughey.  The film needs a bit less sentimentality and more editing, but than this is a Hollywood production.

The South is still the most politically backward part of the U.S., partly due to its history of racism and slavery.  But the insistence on a reactionary regional or ‘national’ identity by white Republicans and neo-Confederates is wearing thin, as the Confederate flag symbol controversy attests.  White workers in the South who line up politically with their rich bosses are some of the most deluded people in the U.S., as scape-goating of blacks or Latinos has also hurt their economic status.   This film shows that even in the 1860s not all white people bought into this perspective but understood who their real enemy was – the plantation owners, their government and their wars, not each other.

Nothing much has changed, except we can exchange plantation owners for oil bosses, coal bosses and corporate bosses at Delta, Coca-Cola, US Steel, the auto-makers producing in the southern U.S., Tyson Foods and the many fast-food companies that are headquartered in the south.  Together with their northern brethren, they make up the new wage-labor plantation system – open to all, but still making more money off black and Latino labor – just like the good ‘ol days.    

Review of the book, "Free State of Jones," below.  Use search box, upper left. 

Red Frog
July 4, 2016

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