Just Deserters: Free State of Jones Review

Mahershala Ali (left) and Matthew McConaughey (right) in the 2016 film Free State of Jones – as seen on time.com


Free State of Jones was directed by Gary Ross (Hunger Games, Seabiscuit) and released in 2016. It follows the life of Newton Knight, a Civil War medic who deserts his post due to discrepancies with Confederate wartime policy. It is largely based on a true story, with “largely” being the keyword, was a box office flop, and met with lukewarm critical response. It stars Matthew McConaughy as the lead, Newton Knight, and Mahershala Ali (Green Book) as one Moses Washington, Knight’s bayou companion and a runaway slave. With a tandem like that, it’s surprising the critical response was so negative, which includes a nice bright green splat on Rotten Tomatoes. After watching the film, I get it.

Now it wasn’t that bad, but it just felt kind of . . . empty? For one, it’s shot above 30 frames per second certainly, which for something like a documentary would be very appealing to the eye but for a movie, it just seems like you’re watching a live-action roleplaying session in a local park. And there’s nothing wrong with playing a little dress-up every now and again (I suppose), but it just didn’t feel very cinematic and was quite hard to be immersed.

What was surprising, however, is how historically accurate the film was for such a maligned production. Usually, if a historical film is bad, it’s the right combination of bad AND inaccurate. Not so with Free State of Jones, or at least with my somewhat limited understanding of the source material.

Let’s discuss.

The Unconfederate States of America

Newton Knight. All I can say is that McConaughy was definitely the right pick.

Contrary to popular belief, the Civil War by 1862-63 was all but over. Although the South and their troops had proven their combat mettle in earlier battles and skirmishes, the sheer manpower and industrial base of the Union army was just too much to handle. Considering that and the infamous Anaconda Plan that ravaged the western borders of the CSA while their best forces were out East in Virginia (bias?), the Confederacy’s days were numbered.

Enter the plot of our story: desertion. By the last year of the war, nearly a third of all enlisted Confederate troops were inactive, meaning they “done runnoft”. Including one Newton Knight, who was, as stated before, a Confederate medic during this time. So why were rebel soldiers deserting en masse during such a crucial stretch of the war? Well, it comes down to a matter of politics.

In 1862, as part of the Second Conscription Act, the Twenty Negro Law (official name) came into effect. The law declared that every one white man for every 20 slaves on a plantation was exempt from military service. And, as we all now know, not every southerner owned slaves. In fact, quite a lot of southerners didn’t own slaves, despite any proclivity for the “opposite” race. This resulted in many among the rebel ranks to call the Civil War, “a rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight”.

Now as for Newton Knight, he too felt slighted by the legislation. But for him, it was more personal than that. In the movie, his teenage son had been drafted into the war and appeared to Newton at his camp, distressed and confused. At this point, I started to question the historical accuracy of this plot conflict because, as we learned in an article, boys younger than 18 were legally not allowed to be drafted unless with express familial permission, and only then in assisting roles to their relatives or as drummer boys. Nevertheless, he allowed his son to join him while he escorted him to his company, but in the process of doing so, his son was killed. This, effectively, ended Newton’s military career.

Bayou Bullies

A swamp – as seen on historycollection.com

This prompted Newton to escape into the bayou, of course. You see, Newton was from Jones County, Mississippi (owing to the film’s name), which includes many boggy swamps extending up from Louisiana. Although they may or may not be as gator-infested as the Louisiana bayous, they still proved to be remarkably effective as a hideout for deserters and slaves alike.

In the swamps of southern Mississippi, there existed an interesting mixed culture of rebel runaways and runaway slaves, forcing both white and black to cooperate for survival in harsh conditions. And, as per the film, it seemed to work beautifully. They repeatedly harassed a local Confederate outfit and even deposed their commanding officer, staking claim to Jones County and two adjacent counties as sovereign territory. How did they manage to do this? Guerilla tactics.

Although these tactics had been used even back during the Revolutionary War against the British, adapted from similar fighting styles of the Native Americans utilizing the lay of the land, it was still incredibly uncommon to see this style of fighting in “formal” war. Using the swamp to their advantage, they would execute coordinated attacks on passerby rebel caravans, who had a habit of taking a little too much from innocent farmers, then retreat back into the swamp where they couldn’t be chased. An 1860s Robin Hood, if you will.

For the last 30 minutes or so of the film, it’s really just a blur. There’s this intertwining future narrative at play with a grandson of Newton in the 1930s on trial for having African ancestry, which we learn to be true with Newton cozying up to a local house servant and together having a child. The freed slaves of the group form a Republican caucus, exercising their newfound right to vote thanks to the 15th Amendment, which ruffles a few white feathers in town and results in their de facto leader, Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), being hung and humiliated by Ku Klux Klan members.

Aaaand scene . . .

Additional Notes

There were a few other smaller things I noticed throughout the film that weren’t necessarily worthy of inclusion in the plot breakdown, so here it goes:

  • Seeing how Newton Knight was a medic, there was of course an obligatory Civil War amputation scene, which actually included an accurate use of anesthesia.
  • I saw in one battle scene the use of trench warfare, which may seem out of place for the time period but was certainly used in some capacity during the Civil War.
  • The local commanding Confederate officer made a habit of ordering deserters to be hung, which is most likely a gross dramatization. Although he could have certainly ordered that to be done, it would have been entirely illegal under Confederate law. The norm was to tattoo or brand draft dodgers and deserters so as to identify them.
  • Much like runaway slave catchers in historical recreation, hounds were often used to find war deserters as well.
  • Although white deserters and black slaves shared space together, that does not mean whites were not racist, which is accurately displayed in the film.
  • The number of deserters drastically spiked after the Vicksburg Campaign (especially in Mississippi), one of the bloodiest campaigns on American soil. This is evident in the movie as well.
  • Towards the end of the film, Knight’s company tries unsuccessfully to join the ranks of the Union, being turned down by Sherman. Most likely, Sherman turned them down similarly to how he refused to accept freed slaves from plantations they had liberated on his March to the Sea. He saw them as an added expense and they most definitely would have burned through their supplies.
  • Also towards the end of the film is the reaction of the freed slaves to the reversal of the 40 acres and a mule reparation, reversed under Andrew Johnson after Lincoln’s assassination.
  • And lastly at the very end, Moses tried to save his kidnapped son from a sharecropping operation, but failed to defend himself in court due to his sons “binding” legal apprenticeship. Basically during and after Reconstruction, apprenticeship was used to, more or less, legally force Blacks back into servitude under a contractual “agreement”. A lot of quotations, I know.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: