I am a huge Matthew McConaughey fan. His work in “Dallas Buyers Club” and “The Lincoln Lawyer” were, in my opinion, two of his best roles to date. And when I saw the preview to his new movie, “The Free State of Jones,” I wanted to like it, I really did.
But, I couldn’t at first.
And here’s why.
It’s coming out just months before “The Birth of a Nation,” the movie written, produced and directed by Nate Parker, who also stars in the lead role as Nat Turner. This movie took the Sundance Film Festival by storm. The production budget of $10 million was funded solely by Parker and financiers. The movie was purchased by Fox for $17.5 million, which is the largest purchase price of a Sundance Film to date. Besides the fact that I’ve been looking forward to this movie forever!
In my humble opinion, I originally felt like “Jones” was just another movie about…you guessed it. A white savior. Step aside Sandra Bullock, there’s a new white hero in town and he’s come to save all the poor little Black people that are too dumb and helpless to save themselves. While I know that many Caucasians were instrumental in assisting with freeing the slaves and the abolition of slavery itself, I’m getting a little tired of the “white savior” narrative. Especially when you’re being saved by the same people you need saving from. That’s like your kidnapper setting you free. What are you supposed to say… thanks for kidnapping me from my home and then bringing me back???
However, I had to check myself. I seem to have this love affair with Nat Turner, and I had to remind myself of his history. I mean, the man killed women and children. Children. Sometimes it feels as if we as Black people hold him up as the King of Slave Rebellions, and maybe, I guess, for his time period, he was. However, he did end up dead, and many other innocent slaves died in the process while he hid. Also, I had to check myself again because I didn’t know a thing about “The Free State of Jones.” I didn’t want to be so ignorant as to base my opinions of a character on a movie preview. So I researched him, and I share what I’ve found below. But, first, Mr. Turner, just in case you don’t know his story.
Here’s the backstory on Nat Turner, the character Parker plays.
Nat Turner (1800-1831) was born a slave in Southhampton County, Virginia. Turner spent his entire life on a plantation where slaves greatly outnumbered slave owners. Turner learned to read and write at a young age, and was noted as being very religious. He could often be found praying, fasting, or reading the Bible. He would often preach to fellow slaves and they nicknamed him “The Prophet” because he was able to see things, even things that happened before he was born.
According to various sources, Turner began to believe that God was speaking directly to him and telling him to start a rebellion against the slave owners in order to free the slaves. In conjunction with his visions, Turner enlisted the support of 70 men, some free and some slaves, and, on August 21, 1831, Turner lead the infamous slave rebellion.
The men traveled from house to house, freeing the slaves and killing white men, women, and children they found. In order to go undetected, they use knives, hatches, and blunt objects, as opposed to loud firearms. Turner himself admitted to only killing one person, a white woman, by hitting her with a piece of wood fencing. In all, 60 white people were killed.
When interviewed by his attorney, Thomas Ruffin Gray, Turner said he thought that revolutionary violence would serve to awaken the attitudes of whites to the reality of the inherent brutality in slavery.
The rebellion lasted two days, however, Turner eluded capture by hiding in the woods for six weeks. During this time, between 100 to 200 innocent slaves were killed by white mobs outraged at the rebellion. Turner was captured on October 30, 1831. On November 5, 1831, Turner was tried, convicted, and hanged six days later. His body was then flayed, beheaded and quartered in order to frighten other would-be rebels. Turner received no formal burial and no one knows exactly what happened to his remains. His skull, however, is said to have passed through many hands, until, in 2003, it reached Gary, Indiana, where it is currently on display at the Civil Rights Museum.
The fear caused by Nat Turner’s rebellion caused some politicians and writers to begin to refer to slavery as a “positive good.” Some believed now more than ever that they were civilizing Africans through slavery. Others felt that improving the treatment of slaves could help to prevent another rebellion.
Unfortunately, I cannot ask Nat Turner what he was thinking in killing women and children. Did you fight for freedom? Revenge? Were you really a hero or just a fanatical preacher gone mad? I don’t know. All I can do is read “Confessions of Nat Turner” and search for answers.
Here’s the backstory on Newton Knight, the character McConaughey is playing.
Newton Knight (1837-1922) was a poor American farmer that lived in Jones County, Mississippi.
Knight was against secession from the Union. He enlisted in the Confederate army in July of 1861. While enlisted, many of his fellow soldiers deserted due to lack of food and supplies. Others were concerned that their farms were going neglected and that Confederate soldiers had looted their property. Knight himself had his family horse stolen by a Confederate soldier while he was away at war. His brother-in-law was also allegedly abusing his children in his absence. Some people speculate that the major reason for Knight’s desertion was the “Twenty Negro Law.” This law allowed wealthy plantation owners to avoid military service if they owned twenty slaves. An additional family member was exempted from service for each additional twenty slaves owned.
Allegedly, Knight deserted in 1862. One year later, Knight was arrested and jailed by Confederate authorities for desertion. His home and farm were destroyed and his family was left destitute. Upon his release, Knight formed The Knight Company to protect the area from Confederate authorities. It was made up of members of his family and neighbors. Local women and slaves provided food to the men and warned them when Confederate authorities were approaching. His company was known as the “Southern Yankees.”
From late 1863 to early 1865, the Knight Company allegedly fought fourteen “battles” with Confederate forces. In 1864, the Knight Company tried to join the Union Army, however, lieutenant General Leonidas Polk thwarted their plans, captured 10 of their members using bloodhounds, and executed them. One of the men killed was Knight’s cousin. Knight managed to escape.
At the end of the war, the Union Army tasked Knight with distributing food to struggling families in the Jones County area. He also led a raid that liberated several children who were still being held in slavery in a nearby county. He was even appointed the Colonel of an all-black regiment defending against activity from the Ku Klux Klan.
In the 1870s, Knight separated from his wife and married a his grandfather’s former slave (how ironic). They went on to have lots of interracial children until Knight died in 1922. Overall, he seems like a great guy. He could have possibly fought for a cause that he believed in, the abolition of slavery. Or, he could have just been a guy that hated the Confederacy and wanted to show them who’s boss.
Since he didn’t write a memoir we will never know his true intentions. However, that won’t keep Hollywood from projecting intentions onto him.
In the beginning, I believed that “Free State of Jones” was put out this year in order to compete with “The Birth of a Nation.” I’m still certain that they will both be nominated for Best Picture and Best Actor and I fear that “Jones” will win both. However, to not see both movies before judging which one is better is unfair to everyone involved in making the films and to the Turner and Knight themselves.
So, in the end, I have decided that conspiracy or not, I owe it to myself to see both movies and then, and only then, to determine their cinematographic value.