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Free State of Jones – an American Civil War story that will sting racists with its tale

This article is over 7 years, 8 months old
A film about Confederate deserter Newton Knight punctures the myth of a South united behind slavery in the American Civil War, writes Charlie Kimber
Issue 2523
Newton Knight (left) threatens to kill a Confederate army lieutenant
Newton Knight (left) threatens to kill a Confederate army lieutenant

Free State of Jones is rooted in the bloody battles of the American Civil War of 1861-65.

It emphasises that the war did not just pit the “free labour” North against the slave-owning Confederate South. There was also an “inner war” in the South between different classes.

The film centres on the life of Newton Knight, a small farmer in Mississippi who is part of the Confederate army at the beginning of the war.

He is sickened by the way the poor are used as cannon fodder while the slaveowners’ children are exempted from the military.

He deserts the army and his doubts about the legitimacy of “his” side grow as the authorities steal the meagre resources owned by ordinary people in order to fuel the war machine.

Knight is eventually forced to flee to the swamps to join a group of runaway slaves.

Their numbers grow as disillusion with the Confederacy spreads and the guerrilla band becomes a small army. It defeats Confederate forces in a series of battles and secures a large part of the state for the Union.

There are great scenes as black people fight and kill their former owners and seek to establish a society of greater freedom and equality alongside poor whites. There are also very strong roles for women.

The film is very carefully based on historical truth. Knight existed, the army of blacks and whites did indeed take a large area of territory.


The sense they were fighting a “rich man’s war” or a “war for cotton” meant that half the Confederate Army had deserted by 1863. A year later Confederate president Jefferson Davis admitted that two-thirds of the army was absent.

This was in addition to the 300,000 Southerners who fled to the North at the beginning of the war to fight for the Union army.

There were armed bands of poor whites and escaped slaves in the Southern states of Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina as well as Mississippi.

In parts of Texas an alliance of poorer whites, Hispanics and slaves opposed the Confederacy.

There are problems with the film. Although there are confrontations between white deserters and escaped slaves there is a danger that this tension is downplayed for the sake of the broader narrative.

Because it also deals with the aftermath of the war and even events decades later, it also sometimes feels overloaded.

Perhaps the most important criticism levelled at the film is that it substitutes the “white saviour” Knight for the centrality of slaves’ own activity. But this attack is misplaced.

The film doesn’t say that whites freed the slaves.

Instead it reveals a largely hidden history of class division which punctures the myth of a homogenous and undivided white pro-slave South.

Free State of Jones will be enjoyed by Socialist Worker readers and will spark debates about the American Civil War. See it.

Free State of Jones
Directed by Gary Ross
Out now in cinemas

Spirit of ’60s rebellion and liberation brought to life

Right wingers reguarly blame the 1960s for all the “ills” of modern society.

More nauseating still, former radicals turned disreputable reactionaries often dismiss the era as just being about hippies dropping acid and dropping out. The Victoria & Albert Museum’s new exhibition avoids both of those pitfalls. It captures some of the spirit of rebellion and hopes for liberation.

The exhibition shows an establishment under attack.

A Daily Mirror newspaper front page asks, “What the hell is going on in this country?”

It’s a treasure trove of original photographs of mass movements, as well as contemporary music, art and fashion. A large section is adorned with powerful posters designed by Emory Douglas, the Black Panther Party’s official artist.

One of the best things is that it’s interactive, with everyone wearing headphones throughout.

We’re shown scenes from the US Civil Rights march in Selma in Alabama and the Kent State University

anti-war protest when the US National Guard killed four students.

One room is done up as a field at the Woodstock Festival. That said, the structure of the exhibition can make it feel like a rather atomised experience.

At one point you can follow the main exhibition route and walk through “Count me out”, or take the left “Count me in” door.

Fighting to change society is presented as an active decision individuals have to take.

But here the exhibition gets slightly weird, with a section on communes in the US in 1970. We’re told that their “user generated content” can still be seen in Steve Jobs, Apple and Silicon Valley.

In reality, it shows how capitalism managed to repackage some of the radicalism as lifestyle chic as a response to the gains won by the mass movements of the 1960s.

But the real radical legacy of 1960s is a rebellion against the status quo.

Perhaps the steep ticket price is perhaps a reminder of how some have cashed-in on rebellion.

You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-77
Victoria and Albert Museum, London, SW7 2RL.
Tickets £16
Until 26 February 2017

A world to win—posters of protest and revolution

This exhibition looks at a century of radical political posters.

It ranges from the Suffragettes in early 20th century Britain to the Arab Spring that swept north Africa in 2011.

It’s aim is to look at how political activists around the world have used posters to mobilise, educate and organise.

William Morris Gallery, London, E17 4PP.
Until 15 January 2017

Larry Herman—Clydeside 1974-76

Photographer Larry Herman left the US during the Vietnam War in the 1970s.

Here Herman chronicles the lives of ordinary people on the River Clyde in Scotland living through intense economic decline.

Street Level Photoworks, Glasgow, G1 5HD.
Until 15 January 2017

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