Finishing up my review of the movie “The Free State of Jones”.
I found this very interesting piece from the Smithsonian Magazine, which gives some clues to the real story of the historical figure Newton Knight.
A key plot point in the film (as in real life) is that Jones County Mississippi is a very swampy place. It was the swamp which allowed “Newt’s boys” to hide out for years and keep Confederate troops at bay. The Confederates knew exactly where the runaways were — they just couldn’t get to them. The Confederates (thankfully) did not have an air force. Their horses could not enter the swamp. Newt’s hide-out was accessible only on foot. And not every foot. Only the locals, both blacks and whites, who knew this swamp intimately, knew where it was safe to step. On his first trip to the hide-out, Newton Knight is led by the beautiful slave girl, Rachel. “Step only where I step,” she warns him. One wrong step — and you’ll be sucked under the mud and gone forever.
Quoting a local expert from the Smithsonian story: Newton “had a number of different hide-outs. The old folks call this one Sal Batree. Sal was the name of Newt’s shotgun, and originally it was Sal’s Battery, but it got corrupted over the years.” He chuckles: “The Confederates kept sending in troops to wipe out old Newt and his boys, but they’d just melt into the swamps.”
Sal Batree, infested by beavers and snakes, is the place where, in the movie, Newton starts to fall in love with Rachel. Rachel, the house-servant from the neighboring plantation, who leads a double life and is the hardest working woman in the movie. Rachel is an African-American version of Wagner’s heroine Kundry, from Parsifal. If you recall, Kundry efficiently divides her time between Grail Castle and Klingsor’s Castle. Similarly: By day Rachel works her regular job inside the mansion while being subject to sexual harrassment by the plantation owner’s son. By night, she walks the swamps, bringing guns and supplies to Newt and his boys.
And speaking of Rachel, that aspect of the movie is clearly fiction. Again, according to the Smithsonian piece, the real Rachel was the former slave of Newton’s own grandfather. Again, that doesn’t jibe with the movie story, in which the Knight family are poor white trash who don’t own any slaves.
Be that as it may, the movie does hint at Newton’s ability to keep two women happy at the same time: Newton and Rachel (post-war) have already settled down to raise their family in a remote place called Soso. Newton’s white wife, Serena arrives — in the movie she is played by actress Keri Russell. In real life, as in the film, Newton and Serena were officially separated, but never actually got divorced. There is a gentle scene in the movie where the two women, Newton’s white wife and his black wife, are sitting together on porch operating the spinning wheel while both tending to Rachel’s new baby, Jason. This hints at the real story, in which Newton was actually a bigamist, and scarily like the leader of a rural cult. Again, per the Smithsonian:
After the Civil War, Knight took up with his grandfather’s former slave Rachel; they had five children together. Knight also fathered nine children with his white wife, Serena, and the two families lived in different houses on the same 160-acre farm. After he and Serena separated—they never divorced—Newt Knight caused a scandal that still reverberates by entering a common-law marriage with Rachel and proudly claiming their mixed-race children.
The Knight Negroes, as these children were known, were shunned by whites and blacks alike. Unable to find marriage partners in the community, they started marrying their white cousins instead, with Newt’s encouragement. (Newt’s son Mat, for instance, married one of Rachel’s daughters by another man, and Newt’s daughter Molly married one of Rachel’s sons by another man.) An interracial community began to form near the small town of Soso, and continued to marry within itself.
“They keep to themselves over there,” says Gavin, striding back toward his house, where supplies of canned food and muscadine wine are stored up for the onset of Armageddon. “A lot of people find it easier to forgive Newt for fighting Confederates than mixing blood.”
This part of the story sounds fairly unsavory; almost like something out of Faulkner. But with overtones of a charismatic leader, and even subconscious reverberations of, say Jim Jones and his inter-racial community, and we all know how that ended.
A Revolution Betrayed
Again, the movie only hints at much of this development in Newton’s private life, and his role as something of a polygamist cult leader in post-war times. There is one scene where Newton walks into a general store to buy some baling wire. The store owner asks him where he is setting up his farm, and Newton replies: “Soso.”
“Ah hear tell they’s only a bunch of niggers up there,” the store guy drawls.
Newton glares at him, but lets it slide: “Nope. They ain’t no niggers up there.”
Again, I want to stress that none of that unsavory incestuous cult stuff forms the core story of the movie. It is only hinted at. The subplot involving Newton’s descendant’s arrest in 1940’s Mississippi, guided by its “one-drop” racialist law, only brings to the fore the fact that the Civil War and Reconstruction did not resolve the racial issue in the American South.
Why did the racial issue not get resolved? The movie makes it clear what happened:
The Union abandoned people like Newton and Rachel. Instead of forcibly dividing up the plantations and giving every farmer “20 acres and a mule” as promised, the post-war authorities allowed the old plantation owners to return and reclaim their “property”. Voting rights were abridged once more. Slavery was re-introduced, in the form of “apprenticeships”. The Klan was allowed to run wild and free, lynching anybody who stood in the way of the Restoration of the old order. Federal authorities backed out, leaving Southern blacks (and poor whites) at the mercy of the oligarchs. The movie shows all of this, which is what puts it in the category (in my opinion) of a “Marxist movie”. Nay, more than Marxist, even Trotskyite. In its depiction of a revolution betrayed. A revolution which was set to resolve both the land question and the racial issue all at once. But which back-slided, leaving an open wound and an endless spiral of violence in American life.
The most horrendous scene in the film is the one where Newton’s best friend and second-in-command, the freed slave Moses, is castrated and lynched by the Klan. Moses is just out and about gathering signatures for the Republican Party for the next county elections. Out of nowhere men gallop up and grab him. Next thing, he is hanging from a tree with his pants down around his ankles. While Moses might be a fictional character, nobody can dispute that this type of violence actually happened; and happened quite a lot. As late as the year 1955, 14-year-old Emmett Till was castrated and lynched in Mississippi by a white mob. Thus helping to spark the Civil Rights Movement. But Till was only the latest victim in a process of systematic terrorism which had been going on for many many generations. A process designed to keep property owners in close communion with their property. Also a process designed to unite people across class lines. Namely uniting propertied white people with unpropertied white people. Uniting them in racial solidarity against black people. Again, eliding the class differences and recreating the conflict as one purely of race.
Whereas, what Newton Knight was attempting to do — well, the Newton of the movie, at least, even if real reality was more complicated — was exactly the opposite: To unite people across racial lines while drawing the mark of division along class lines. To further mutual class interests, such as getting a slice of land or a better paycheck. The Newton of the film is consistent in his hatred and contempt of the plantation owners, with their private army called the Confederacy; with their predations and taxations of regular folks, the requisitions of grain and hogs; their arbitrary rules about exemptions; for example, a farm owning at least 20 Negroes may exempt the older son from service; etc. etc. The Newton Knight of the film knows exactly what is going on here, and has a very clear plan what to do about it, and how to clean out these oligarchic parasites.
Unfortunately, the Newton Knight of the film, as in real life, eventually loses his war. He is defeated, not by guns; but by something even more insidious: By the hatred, the thirst for violence, and the evil which brew within the human soul.