Continuing with my movie review: The 2016 American film The Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey as the historical figure Newton Knight.
The movie tells the amazing story of Knight, and his evolution from a Captain in the Confederate Army – to the leader of a ragtag band of white farmers, runaway slaves, freed slaves, and Army deserters who set up their own state within a state.
I mentioned before that their situation reminds me, in a crazy way, of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Here are the analogies right at hand:
- The secession from the Union of the slave states forced various disgruntled elements from within to secede from the Secession = The coup which overthrew the legitimate Ukrainian government forced various disgruntled elements from within to secede from the Secession.
- The slave-state secessionists were a group of powerful oligarchs whose wealth came from land-ownership and their trade in slaves, cotton and other products = The motivators of the Ukrainian coup were a group of powerful oligarchs whose wealth came from looting the carcass of Soviet state assets.
- The slave-state secessionists looked for powerful international forces for support, mainly Great Britain = The Ukrainian coup looked to powerful international forces, mainly the United States.
- The secessionists within the slave Secession looked to a single force in the hope of support, namely the Union goverment and army, received a certain amount of support thereof and yet were continuously disappointed and betrayed by their supposed saviors = The Donbass secessionists look to Russia for support and frequently experience disappointment also from their hoped-for saviors.
As to Point #4: there is a poignant moment in the movie, when Newton appeals to Union General (William Tecumseh) Sherman, to recognize and aid their little breakaway Free State of Jones, and send troops to help them fight off the Confederate army. Sherman sends a negative response, basically a “no way Jose” will he recognize their rump state, probably because even Union Generals felt uncomfortable at the notion of so many Negroes carrying so many guns. After which a glum Captain Newton has to address his followers with the bad news. “We’re on our own,” he tells them glumly. I am betting that Alexander Zakharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk Separatists, can totally relate to that bleak situation.
White Savior vs The Magical Negro
It has been said (broadly and facetiously) that all Hollywood movies about race fall into one of two camps: White Savior (sometimes confused with “Mighty Whitey” which is a slightly different genre, more like Tarzan films) or The Magical Negro. If such is the case, then “The Free State of Jones” is obviously a member of the White Savior genre. And there is absolutely no magical negro in it at all, all the negroes in this film are just ordinary people. Well, extraordinary in their bravery and determination, but not having any particular magical powers nor even surpassing folk wisdom other than a firm opinion (elucidated by Newton’s sidekick Moses) that “Ain’t nobody can hold a free man”, and these negroes and poor whites actually quite dependent on the military prowess of Newton Knight, to keep them all alive out there in the swamp.
According to the rules of the White Savior genre, the white hero (or possibly heroine) puts him/herself out on a limb to rescue or at least help disadvantaged minorities. One can see this genre emerging in America as early as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In which the prototype White Savior is a sweet little white child, Eva.
According to the somewhat sneering assessment by sociologist Matthew Hughey, a Columbia University scholar who writes on American race relations; this quote is from the wiki piece I linked above:
A White Savior film is often based on some supposedly true story. Second, it features a nonwhite group or person who experiences conflict and struggle with others that is particularly dangerous or threatening to their life and livelihood. Third, a White person (the savior) enters the milieu and through his or her sacrifices as a teacher, mentor, lawyer, military hero, aspiring writer, or wannabe Native American warrior, is able to physically save—or at least morally redeem—the person or community of folks of color by the film’s end. Examples of this genre include films like Glory (1989), Dangerous Minds (1996), Amistad (1997), Finding Forrester (2000), The Last Samurai (2003), Half-Nelson (2006), Freedom Writers (2007), Gran Torino (2008), Avatar (2009), The Blind Side (2009), The Help (2011), and the list goes on.
To which I suppose one should grudgingly add “The Free State of Jones”; and yet I personally reject Hughey’s negative assessment of these films, with its implied criticism of overweening white narcissism. Maybe it’s just ’cause I’m white myself, I dunno. Hey, isn’t it better to fantasize oneself as a Rescuer rather than a Bully? And, besides, not all the listed films were bad. I do believe that Amistad was a really good film, and coincidentally that one also starred Matthew McConaughey, but in a very different role. His character managed to rescue the Africans therein not at gunpoint, but by arguing a fine point of property law. And furthermore, despite Hughey’s sneering, both Amistad and Jones truly are based on historical events and actual white-skinned heroes; and does their story not deserve to be told?
Perhaps Hughey is just upset that the equivalent stories of black heroes don’t get told, or don’t get told enough; for example, people like Nat Turner or Harriet Tubman; and many others, whom we have never even heard of. And that’s a fair point, these stories should be told, and they should be taught in the schools and regular university curriculum, not just siphoned off to “Black Studies” Departments. And by the way, the other recent pro-North movie which I mentioned, Union Bound, based on the true story of Union Sargent Joseph Hoover, is not a White Savior genre film; quite the opposite — Hoover and his companion are rescued by ordinary African-Americans who help them escape back to the North by plugging them into the Underground Railroad network. Hence, one could call this a “Black Savior” movie. And these particular Negroes also do not possess magical powers, just good organizing skills and a flair for logistics.
But to return to the movie we are discussing now: This is the true story of Newton Knight, and is he, or is he not, a hero who saved the lives of other people, due to his military and other skills?
In the third and final installment of this review, I will discuss Knight’s personality and how his character doesn’t actually change from the beginning to the end of the film. Knight is a consistent character, whose views remain consistent and do not evolve much at all. His is not the story of, say, a John Newton, with an “Amazing Grace” moment of change and/or redemption. There is no “Damascus” moment. It would have made for better Hollywood drama, had Knight started out as an Archie Bunker type racist and then “got to know” some black folks and realized that they are okay people after all. But that isn’t what happened. Knight didn’t seem even at the beginning to have much of a beef, or even much of an opinion, about the slaves, or about blacks in general. His actual beef, consistently, is against rich white plantation owners, and against the army which these parasites command; namely the Confederate Army. And that is also realistic, because most people don’t actually change their political views or their prejudices much over time.
[to be continued]