Netwon Knight decided at one point during the South’s secession from the United States, that he didn’t want to fight their war. Mississippi had seceded primarily over the issue of slavery and Knight didn’t own any slaves. He saw the conflict as poor people fighting for wealthy people and after losing his nephew, decided he’d had enough. So, he left.
Well, the Confederate States didn’t take that too lightly, so they declared him a traitor and put a bounty on his head. the Confederate Army would go on to take the private property of Knight’s poor neighbors, hang deserters, and generally be tyrannical to its subjects, generating enough animosity in Knight’s Jones County that he was able to stir up a rebellion. In an almost fractal-like history, Knight seceded from a state that seceded from a nation that seceded from an empire.
The result was The Free State of Jones, which Knight and his followers established after successfully running the rebs out of a Ellisville, Mississippi. In the film’s elaborate website citing all the historic references, a newspaper article reported, “It may be interesting to many of our citizens to know that the county of Jones, State of Mississippi, has seceded from the State and formed a Government of their own, both military and civil. The Confederacy, after claiming the right of secession, not being willing to extend the same to the said Republic, has declared war against it and sent an army under Col. Mowry, of Mobile, to crush the rebellion.”
The irony of secession being illegal in a country that had just secede was not lost on that journalist, but it brings forth the most important question from the film: do people have a right to determine their own destiny? Of course this question resonates vividly in the runaway slaves who helped the fugitive Knight in the swamps of Mississippi. If the people of the South were just in shaking off the yolk of their oppressors, why wasn’t The Free State of Jones justified in doing the same thing, and more pointedly, why weren’t the slaves justified in declaring their freedom? The point is driven home when Knight asks the runaway why he’s a free man. Moses responds, “You can’t own a child of God.”
This issue could have easily made for a complete film and combined with beautiful cinematography, excellent acting by Matthew McConaughey and Maherashala Ali and directing by Gary Ross, the first three quarters of the film were great. It would’ve been one of the best libertarian films ever if it left off at the culmination of the secession.
Unfortunately, the film continued on to depict Knight’s life after the war, revealing the amazing work he did in Reconstruction to ensure the rights of the freedmen in his area. That content was interesting but made the film drag on and when accompanied with the legal travails of Knight’s descendants in a segregated South made for a whimpering, depressing finish. “Jones” started off “Braveheart” and ended up “Old Yeller”.
Despite its flaws, the film is still one of the top productions about the diversity in the South during the Civil War and raises the eternal question: what does it mean to be free?