“Somehow, some way, and some time, everybody is somebody else’s nigger,” is an actual quote that happens around midway through Free State of Jones. Uttered by Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight, a Confederate nurse-turned-deserter-turned-freedom-fighter in defense of one of his black comrades, it’s perhaps the most oblivious remark about race in a film that is remarkable mostly for its astounding oblivion about race. At that point, an hour and change into a narrative slog as thick as the Mississippi swamp where Knight and his diverse buddies hide, it becomes apparent that the film is going nowhere fast.
But to cast Free State of Jones aside as just another bad summer movie might be missing the point. Written and directed by Gary Ross, it’s held back by a slow, disjointed plot that doesn’t quite know what it wants to do, and it betrays no signs of having attempted to develop characters. But with its badness comes a real opportunity for instruction: The film’s ideas about race and its main character Knight are textbook examples of how not to have conversations about white privilege, “allyship,” and black struggle. As such, they invite a closer look.
To say that McConaughey’s portrayal of Newton Knight is a white savior perhaps undersells the trope. After a tragedy sparks his desertion from the Confederate cause, he realizes that his opposition to the Civil War as “a poor man’s fight” is the moral fiber that drives him. A strange jumble of circumstances, unexplained moral convictions, and a touch of deus ex machina find Knight hiding in a matcha-green swamp amongst a group of impossibly trusting escaped slaves. In perhaps the single touch of insightful racial commentary in the film, this band of enslaved folks have all forsaken their birth names in favor of those of Biblical prophets. Their leader, played by House of Cards’s Mahershala Ali, is the underutilized and largely unexplored Moses.
It’s unclear how Knight became such an impossibly good person, but his brief time between desertion and swamp life sees him level up from a scurrying battlefield nurse to something akin to a mix of Robin Hood and Prometheus. In the course of 20 screen minutes, Knight frees enslaved people from manacles, gives them guns, and begins teaching them how to read. His philosophy that economic justice underpins all societal ills seems to motivate his strange goodness and also allows him the inhuman ability to recruit white Mississippians into the ranks of the escaped slaves to form a group of economic freedom fighters who only bicker once about race. Newton Knight is the wokest white dude. He’s so woke that both he and the movie abandon his white wife and child to pursue his romance and eventual marriage with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a mulatto slave who falls for him simply because it serves the plot.
This is a quasi-historical telling, and—spoiler alert—the war ends and Knight’s title sovereignty gives way to Reconstruction. The film loses its narrative way and becomes a mashup of vignettes around this point, but the vignettes each recall some real-world commentary on race and current events. There’s a massacre of freedmen in a church that evokes Dylann Roof’s 2015 massacre in Charleston; there’s a mother fretting over her son potentially becoming the victim of violence; there are scenes of purposeful anti-black voter intimidation and suppression. There’s a lynching. Despite the fact that all of these incidents happen to black characters, it’s Knight who is always front and center, issuing platitudes about economics, poor folks, and rightness in McConaughey’s textbook drawl. There’s even a scene where Knight leads a group of grown black men to the ballot box because they are too afraid to do so otherwise.
I have a soft spot for white-savior films in all their moral simplicity and naivete—I still laugh at the absurdity of Dangerous Minds and The Last Samurai—but Free State of Jones may be the most egregious I’ve ever seen. Its lack of self-awareness and the immensity of its privilege are palpable. But all that privilege reflects how real-life conversations about race have often gone. As black activists have pushed the country past its post-racial fever dream and into a space where race is a common—often commodified—topic, it pays as a white person with a certain liberal sensitivity to claim wokeness, a brand of awareness of the continued existence of racism characterized by consumption of famous black theorists and the use of the word “ally.”
McConaughey’s Knight is a gun-toting avatar of Woke Whiteness, a man who’s both a stylistic and philosophical forefather to so many Millennial social-media users. His message of universal class-based solidarity, as outlined in his quote about ownership of niggers, is as inadequate as theirs in actually identifying and exploring the roots of racial oppression in America. The notion that white people can be “niggers” is about as offensive as they come when considering the history of the epithet and how it’s long been utilized by poor whites as a demarcation between whiteness—even its lowest rungs—and blackness. There’s a reason why black people were lynched for voting during Reconstruction and are shot for standing on corners today—one that Knight’s political revolution completely fails to comprehend.
A better film would have muddled the clean white-savior narrative with an actual exploration of what the racial politics of a mixed-race insurgency in the South might have been like. Hell, I’d watch a do-over that focused on just how they really got poor white farmers to fight alongside freed slaves—by all accounts their mortal social enemies—and what happened when things inevitably broke down in the swamps. I’d love to see how white farmers and freedmen alike viewed Knight, a man of obvious leadership talents who took a white wife and a black wife. If not Newton Knight, I’d like stories about John Brown or other militant abolitionists. Those stories would benefit from a narrative that doesn’t center the white hero to the point of absurdity (this particular story would have been much better with Rachel or Moses as the lead). They might even tell us something about how to have more productive conversations about race today.
As Slate’s Jamelle Bouie has noted, it’s high time that the southern Civil War mythology is complicated with the fullness of its roster of heroes and some of the multi-layered racial and class politics that led to the real-life Knight creating a mixed-race community in the backwoods of the heart of the Confederacy. It’s also high time for the richness of the agency of slaves, especially enslaved women, to be explored. And it’s long past time that the dialectic of how to be a racially conscious, responsible, and good white person in a diversifying world is challenged. It’s probably hard to be a truly woke white person in a time of changing mores and an ever-increasing challenge to accountability and introspection by black activists, as Justin Timberlake’s recent awkward Twitter response to black activism illustrates. The answer to each of these is probably to study everything that Free State of Jones did and do the opposite.
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