‘Free State Of Jones’ Emphasizes The Importance Of Crossing The Color Line

The film tells one man’s heroic story, but has a message for our entire nation about what it takes to begin and sustain a meaningful revolution.

Free State of Jones debuted on July 1st. Starring Matthew McConaughey, the film tells the story of Mississippi farmer Newton Knight, who was a medic for the Confederate Army in 1863. Knight does not believe in slavery, and chooses to return home and protect his family after his nephew dies in battle.

When Knight is forced to flee his home due to Confederate soldiers capturing and attacking deserters, he bands up with a group of runaway slaves in the swamps. Winning their trust over time, he forms an alliance with slaves and later with other runaway soldiers. His allied forces are able to lead a rebellion and Jones County, Mississippi secedes from the Confederacy.

The real Newton Knight is picture on the left. (source)

The real Newton Knight is picture on the left. (source)

The movie succeeds in telling two stories at once: as viewers watch Knight’s transformation from defiant deserter to humble revolution leader, he is also falls in love with a black female slave. They ultimately have a child together, who they send north in order to free him from the burdens of racism because he is fair skinned.

Scenes of a court case are shown throughout the main plot, where their great grandson Davis Knight is indicted for being 1/8th black. Because of his ethnic lineage, his marriage to a white woman is being ruled invalid. As such, the son ultimately is sentenced to prison time under the charge of miscegenation.

The film’s plot is based on the real life of Newton Knight. Though the film only reveals Knight’s first child with Rachel, Knight actually had five children with her. This is in addition to the nine children he had with his wife Serena, with whom he never legally had a divorce.

In spite of the scandal of his desertion, Knight’s infamy is attributed most to his common-law marriage with Rachel and his public acceptance of their biracial children. Knight’s children with Rachel were known as the ‘Knight Negroes’, ostracized by the black and white community alike. Because of this, an interracial community was formed near Soso Mississippi by the marrying of cousins.

The film is powerful both for its vivid depiction of the Reconstruction era and its bold-faced revelations about the struggles following Emancipation.  One of the more riveting sub-plots is the story of a former slave named Moses. Once black men receive the right to vote, he is shown canvassing much of Mississippi to write down eligible black men in his ledger. Before he is able to see this mission through, he is brutally sodomized, beat, and hung by several white men.

One might wonder why such a provocative film about the Civil War, the racism of that era, and the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan is relevant in 2016. Given the publicity spike in the past two years about police pillaging of black bodies and society’s indulgence in the fantasy that racism has been vanquished, such a film certainly feels poignant. A large part of what makes Knight’s story so powerful is the fact that he struck unity between white deserters and black slave escapees. In a time when men were fighting to maintain its divide, Newton Knight was able to cross the color line.

Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in FREE STATE OF JONES

Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in FREE STATE OF JONES

Knight’s battle didn’t end when emancipation seemed like a viable end to racial strife. In fact, as depicted in the film Knight seemed to know from its beginning that emancipation was not going to change the race relations of the south. The film does not paint over the gloom and disappointment of the exchange from slavery to sharecropping. It does not ignore the fact that apprenticeship was used as a ruse to possess young black children. It does not undermine the significance of one white man’s choice to defy racist Confederate oppression.

Free State of Jones is a reminder that the class structure and power dynamics underlying racism are not easy to overcome. The film emphasizes that it is only through active defiance that change can even begin to be seen. More importantly, change will not be immediately radical, and that fact cannot discourage persistence. Oppression isn’t simply an antiquated notion: it is still present in 2016 and will continue into the future if society continues to uphold the color line.

The battle to efface racism and end discrimination isn’t a fight for black people alone. It isn’t a fight for white people alone, or any other singular ethnic group. It is a battle that can only really be waged through unity across color lines and through an active refusal to promote racial hatred.

Everyone should see this movie, and then initiate conversations about its ramifications and invite serious contemplation about racism in America.

Photo source.

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