Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Free State of Jones.

Newton Knight (1837–1922). [A]
It's October, 1862. CSA Army medic Newton ("Newt") Knight, already sceptical about the real motivation behind the secession and appalled by the carnage he witnessed in the battlefield, deserted. Upon returning to his farm in Jones County, Mississippi, Knight witnesses the abuses visited by the Confederate authorities upon the white farm women left behind. Knight intervenes and is forced to join a band of runaway slaves, hiding in the swamps. Welcomed by the former slaves, Knight befriends and leads them, after finding they share a common cause.

It may have been mere coincidence that the release, last June, of "Free State of Jones", directed by Gary Ross coincided with the formal launch of the Donald Trump presidential campaign and with the last days of the Bernie Sanders nomination campaign.  If it was a coincidence, however, it may have been a rather unfortunate one: the movie has received mixed reviews from film critics, and, competing against blockbusters such as "Independence Day: Resurgence" for the viewers' hard-earned, it was not a commercial success.

Why should that release date be important? "Free State of Jones" describes events during the American Civil War and its aftermath. That conflict captured the imagination of the American public and has inspired many films and TV series, depicting the events as experienced by diverse groups. To the best of my knowledge (and I claim no expertise) dramatisations generally represent white southerners as universally secessionists, their pro-slavery attitude often taken for granted.

"Free State of Jones" offers a different perspective, which, without fully contradicting prevailing narratives, provides perhaps unwelcome nuance. Newt Knight, its main protagonist, leads his band, christened as the Knight Company after an increasing number of white deserters joined it, in an armed uprising against the Confederate authorities.

That doesn't make Ross' film unique. Historical epics, like "Braveheart" and "The Patriot", often portray ragtag rebel armies' struggle against impossible odds. What makes Ross' film different is that this is a class war. Ross' insurgents are motivated by class grievances, not by romantic calls for an amorphous "freedom" or by absurd dynastic loyalties; more importantly, they say so explicitly in the film itself. An early, although not particularly explicit example (a better instance would be their "declaration of independence"), which I enjoyed due to the subtly ironic humour involved, comes from a scene between Knight and Moses, the leader of the slaves:

Moses: How come they houndin' you?
Knight: 'Cause I left. Deserted.
Moses: How come?
Knight: Oh, it ain't my fight, you know. Don't own no slaves. Ain't gonna die so they can get rich sellin' their cotton.
Moses: That's why we left too.

It doesn't take a genius to understand why minions of the odious Murdoch media wouldn't like such film. One can almost see them, for instance, squirming during a much commented scene where Knight himself rather brutally executes a Confederate officer. The hanging of three crying children ordered by the same officer a few scenes earlier, however, deserves not a single line from those sensitive souls. Advocates of class domination have a highly developed sense of compassion, although it is strictly selective.

In fact, although his enemies see them as Unionists, flying the Union flag as they do, it's not clear the Knight Company is fighting for the "Union" at all, as much as seeing the Yankees as natural allies in their own war.  In that they were disappointed, paralleling the lukewarm reaction of critics from the so-called "progressive" media. It seems Knight and the producers of the film made the same miscalculation.

By now, readers must know my own biases, so there's little point on my pretending to be a detached, impartial observer. Personally, I found the film engaging and eminently "watchable". I suspect the late Joe Bageant would have enjoyed it, too.

If I were to quibble it would be on flash-forwards where more modern echoes of Knight's times are presented, in the spirit of Faulkner's famous quote: "The past is not dead. It's not even past". Although this succeeds in making the point that American society is a lot more complex than the simplistic morality tales preferred by right and liberal left suggest, they also distract from the main story line. Could the same effect have been achieved by better means? I can't say.

Knight was played successfully by Matthew McConaughey (whom, judging by original pictures, manages to look quite like Knight). The stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw, as Knight's black common-law wife Rachel, is nothing short of impressive. Mahershala Ali plays the stoic fugitive slave Moses, perhaps the most likable character in the story. A long list, including locals from Mississippi, completes the cast.

The film has been called "preachy" by critics. Maybe, but if so, it doesn't piously cover warts. If critics want to see in Knight a kind of hillbilly Robin Hood, they cannot claim his Knight Company are the Merry Men. Racism is not hidden: it's present and visible. Those are no angels, but flesh-and-bone people. More tellingly: racism comes to the surface even in the most unexpected situations (but you'll have to watch the documentary feature included in the DVD to understand that). Life has a way of being ironic.

This leads me to what, as I see things, is the key question about a film advertised as "based on the incredible true story": how historically accurate is the story presented? That feature included in the DVD suggests Ross, also responsible for the screenplay, did his homework. Extensive research on the subject backs up the film, which seems largely confirmed by comments from the audience.

In this context, to call the movie an example of the "white saviour" narrative, as film sophisticates paid by the so-called "progressive" media did, sounds more like a call to suppress substantially true stories, because their main protagonist is "white trash". It's okay if they are the target.

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While my own experiences are different -- I'm writing in the 21st century, for Christ's sake -- many things in the film strike me as true, on a personal level. Among them, that your friends are not necessarily those who look or sound like you, but those who, whatever their appearances, share life experiences, hardship and struggles included, with you. Perhaps you don't like them. Guess what? They may not like you much, either. But if someone can put themselves in your shoes and maybe, eventually, even give a damn about you, it is them. No one else will. Maybe it's time you give the first step and start giving a damn about them. In the process, you may even start seeing each other as equals.

If that makes "Free State of Jones" "didactic" -- another putdown favored by "progressive" critics --  then I suppose Gary Ross shall have little trouble living with that.

Image Credits:
[A] "Photograph of Newton Knight (1837–1922), an American Civil War-era anti-Confederate guerilla from Mississippi". Author: Unknown. Source: Wikimedia. File in the public domain.

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