Back in 1991, I spent one week in Charleston, SC, on loan from my community in Alexandria, VA, to help out in the Pauline Book & Media Center there while other Sisters were away on vacation. Having always been a history buff, I took the opportunity to visit Fort Sumter on the weekend. The narrative provided during the boat trip mentioned the 1989 film, Glory, the story of which took place on nearby Morris Island. That night, I rented Glory and loved the film so much that it launched me into a decade-long reading frenzy about all things Civil War. So, when I heard last year that a new movie set in the Civil War was coming out, I was more than excited to see it.
Fighting the Rich Man’s War
Free State of Jones, written and directed by Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit), is based on a true story about Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a poor farmer from Jones County, Mississippi. In 1862, he was a nurse at the aftermath of the Battle of Corinth, tasked with scouring the battlefield for anyone left alive. Be ready. The film shows what nineteenth-century weapons could do to the human body.
Newt learns about a new law that exempts the eldest son of a landowner from service if his daddy owns 20 slaves. Two sons could be exempt if the number went up to 40. Not wanting to be involved in, “a rich man’s war, but a poor man’s fight,” he deserts when a boy from his home town is struck down by a Yankee bullet. Newt takes the boy’s body home to his mother.
Friend of the Poor
Even as a sought-after deserter, Newt becomes the guardian angel of Jones County, protecting the non-slave owning, poor farmers from the Confederate supply officers, bent on taking the little these folks have to live on. Eventually, he’s forced into the swamps to hide. There he becomes the leader of a rag-tag group of escaped slaves and other deserters. As their numbers grow, they carry out an armed rebellion against the Confederacy declaring the area of southern Mississippi now under control of the “Knight Company,” the Free State of Jones, loyal to the Union.
Mahershala Ali and Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones (STX Entertainment)
The portrayal of Knight by Matthew McConaughey showcases this actor’s obvious talent. Having moved from the lighter roles of his rom-com days to more gritty roles like his Oscar-winning turn in The Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey’s intensity and ability to catch Knight’s emotions in his face keeps the viewer riveted to his eyes.
Learning from History
Like any other film based on history, this one will likely have its share of hubbub about historical accuracy (or lack thereof). It seems that Knight is still a figure of controversy to those in his native Mississippi. The film’s characterization of Newt Knight as an avenging angel, raising his sword to dispel slavery and injustice from the land, makes him attractive to an audience attuned to social justice issues, but he was far from perfect, as his extra-marital relationship with slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) shows.
As I walked back to the subway in New York City after seeing the film, I was thinking about why the filmmaker chose to make this movie at this point in history. I kept coming back to a line from the film, “You cannot own a child of God.”
The little enclave formed by the Knight Company, made up of poor farmers and escaped slaves seemed almost utopian. For the most part everyone got along just fine. It really was too good to be true. However, as an ideal, it reminded me that every single person is a child of God, never to be owned but always to be loved and respected. The cliché that comes to mind for modern issues is “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”
Everyone is a child of God whether he or she acts like it or not. Everyone is a child of God whether or not I agree with/like his or her morals, politics, lifestyle, or whatever. As such, each person is deserving of love and respect. There is already enough disrespect and hate in the world. Just like Newt Knight was not perfect, neither are we but we don’t let that stop us from constantly advocating for what is right.
We have laws in our land that fly in the face of what God intends, laws like abortion and same-sex marriage. We oppose these laws but with different weapons than those used by Newt Knight. Our greatest weapon, of course, is love. Let us learn from history and do our part as followers of Jesus to let love and respect be the basis for all our words and actions.