Free State Of Jones: Movement Behind The Movie

Mahershala Ali and Matthew McConaughey star in FREE STATE OF JONES

Story of a radical, racial coming together opens as Americans pessimistic regarding race.

If box office sales are the measure of a movie’s success, “Free State of Jones” is not off to a good start. Produced for an estimated $50 million, ticket sales in the U.S. topped just over $19 million by its third weekend. Nevertheless, in light of how tense race relations are in America today, “Free State of Jones” may well be the most relevant film in theaters.

The Civil War-era drama tells the story of Newton Knight, (portrayed by actor Matthew McConaughey). As a white man in Mississippi, Knight rejected the premise of racial segregation. He fell in love with a black woman and led a rebellion against the Confederacy. All this while establishing an integrated, pro-Union community.

Timely Racial Story

These days tension emanates from Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas, where shootings of black men by white police officers, and retaliatory shootings of police officers by black men have become the focus of the nation.  Americans are losing hope when it comes to race relations: 69 percent say they are mostly bad; only 26 percent think they are mostly good. Surprisingly perhaps, nearly the same percentage of whites and blacks agree that they are mostly bad – 71 and 72 percent, respectively.

Maybe it’s time to learn some history about a time and place where blacks and whites lived together while fighting against slavery. They fought white supremacy and a government that, according to Alexander Stephens, vice-president of the Confederacy, would have institutionalized both forever. Newton Knight, captain of the Jones County Rangers, dedicated himself to keep that from happening.

From left, Newt (Matthew McConaughey), Moses (Mahershala Ali), Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Will (Sean Bridgers), Jasper (Christopher Berry) and other members of the Knight Company camp assembled in the woods
From left, Newt (Matthew McConaughey), Moses (Mahershala Ali), Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Will (Sean Bridgers), Jasper (Christopher Berry) and other members of the Knight Company camp assembled in the woods

“I’m glad the story is out,” Olga Watts Nelson told Message. Nelson is a great-granddaughter of Newton and Rachel Knight, the black woman who had been a slave of Newton’s grandfather. Opinions vary about Newton Knight, but objective history indicates that he was extremely remarkable for his time. In the movie “Free State of Jones,” Knight is portrayed as a man whose journey seemed to start in a fairly traditional Southern way but evolved dramatically, placing him at odds with many Mississippians and the government of the Confederacy.

Not only was he violating conventional Southern politics by rebelling against the Confederate government, he was doing so during a war. And later, just after the Civil War ended, Knight also violated the social mores of the South by openly loving a black woman and raising a family with her – even though he also had a white wife, Serena.

“There were so many families like this down here in the South – I don’t want to say just Mississippi,” Nelson said. “Many mixed-race families.”

Interracial Marriage And Relationships

A fascinating sub-plot of “Free State of Jones” connects Knight’s and Rachel’s post-Civil War love affair with one that would happen 80 years later with Davis Knight. Davis Knight looked white, lived as a white man, and married a white woman named Junie Lee Spradley. Their marriage was challenged in a 1948 court case as a violation of Mississippi’s miscegenation law. A jury found him guilty and sentenced him to five years in prison, but the Mississippi Supreme Court overturned the conviction. State law required that a person be found to have at least 1/8th African ancestry – what some pejoratively called “octoroon” – to be black legally. The high court found, however, that the so-called “one-drop” rule, did not determine an individual’s racial identity.

Few care about such things today. After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state interracial bans in 1967, there was no longer a legal impediment to people marrying outside of their races. And so they do. An estimated 10 percent of all opposite-sex marriages are interracial, and 12 percent of newlyweds married outside their races in 2013. Opinions about interracial marriages also have remarkably changed. Polls show that 96 percent of blacks and 84 percent of whites now approve of them.

Maintaining The Secret Family Tree

Despite how culturally rich and historically important the Knight family history is, Nelson said it wasn’t discussed much when she was a child. I really think it was because of the times,” she explained. “During the ’40s, it was hard for black folks to start saying they were related to white folks.” In fact, when her grandmother Augusta died in 1951, Nelson’s Aunt Rachel – named for the family matriarch – left at least one key detail off of the death certificate. “Rachel didn’t even put on there that her father was Newton Knight,” she said.

Skin tone was another sensitive issue for the Knights. Some of Newton and Rachel Knight’s descendants believed that they needed to keep the family as “light-skinned” as possible. “They got to the point where they were intermarrying,” Nelson said. “Cousins and half-sisters and brothers, so that their skin would stay light.” Some called these family members the “Knight Negroes.”

“They had it in their minds that they had to stay light so that their children wouldn’t be harmed,” Nelson explained. Her grandmother, Augusta Anne, purposely left Soho, Mississippi so she could marry outside of the family. Her husband didn’t fit the family stereotype. “My father’s father was just a plain black man,” Nelson said. “We came out browner.”

Nelson chuckled at this, apparently very much at peace with the turn of skin tone in her family, just as she is with the movie and her great-grandfather, its main subject.

“It’s a good story,” she said. “He was a good man.”

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