Saturday, July 09, 2016

Free State & Bears

Good stuff seen this week : Free State of Jones at the cinema; and the bears on Bearcam. If that Bearcam link no longer works, a Google search for Bearcam will provide others. I find watching it to be nicely relaxing, the sound of the water as well as the visual treats.

Matthew McConaughey has lately been showing us that he's a serious actor. His early films used him as pure chick-flick bait, lightweight in acting demands. In recent years Matthew (I'll call him by his first name because I simply cannot remember how to spell his surname) has proved what he really can do given the opportunity: in Dallas Buyers Club, Interstellar, Season 1 of TV series True Detective; and The Lincoln Lawyer for example he's proved he's a lot more than simply Texas cheesecake. That pattern continues in Free State of Jones.

Free State of Jones is a deadly serious movie, unlike most others on offer at this time of year. It's really a history lesson made palatable by excellent performances, by Matthew and a cast of mostly unknown (to me) actors, both black and white.

Much that was relevant in the mid 19th century, when the movie is set, is still sadly relevant today, in different ways or contexts. I've read a couple of reviews since seeing the film, one applauding it, one not as keen. I understand there are some which really pan the film badly. To each their own! I'm very glad to have seen it, was never bored at any point during the 2 hours and 19 minutes of its run-time.

There's a very good piece at Smithsonian website outlining the long painstaking research period undertaken by Gary Ross, the film's director. Even for anyone not seeing the movie, I think this article's detail of the story would be of general interest .

In a nutshell, Free State of Jones, necessarily fictionalised in places, is the fact-based story of a poor white Mississippi yeoman farmer, Newton Knight (played by Matthew M), during the time of the Civil War and after. Knight discovered an unexpected "calling". He deserted from his nurse/orderly post in the Confederate army, during a bloody battle (the early scenes in the film had me covering my eyes), to return the body of a very young kinsman to his mother. Knight had become so disenchanted with the war, enough so that he was to remain a deserter, continually on the run. He threw in his lot with a group of runaway slaves. The group was joined, in time, by other local opposers of the war, runaway slaves and men and women whose homes and livelihoods had been destroyed by Confederate forces.

After many challenges, changes and much heart-searching there was established by Newton Knight and his followers, in Jones County within the state of Mississippi, the tiny "Free State of Jones". Within this Free State all, regardless of colour of their skin, were considered equal. There were some problems in that regard along the way, but it was due to Newt Knight's strong personality and leadership skills that most were smoothed.

 Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw)
There's little time for romance in this movie. Knight manages to keep both his original wife and family, together with a new black lover, Rachel, a slave from a nearby plantation who he first met in early scenes when she helped heal his son's fever. He has several children by her too, but that's not the main part of the film's story. Knight, by the end of the film, wills his property to Rachel, being unable to marry her under segregation law then in force.

Interspersed, in the 19th century action, now and then and rather oddly, but for a purpose, are scenes in a Mississippi courtroom some 85 years later, when a great grandson of Newton Knight is being tried for marrying a white woman. The great grandson looks just like any other white man, but it has been proved that he has one eighth black blood, from his great grandmother, Rachel - Newt Knight's black common-law wife. He is therefore sent to jail for marrying a white woman. Reviewers I've read are critical of these "inserts", but I felt they showed how, in spite of every effort, every good intention, every law, the insidious disease of racism persisted - and still persists now, a further 70 years on.

A scene I saw as important, though not mentioned in the reviews I read: after slaves were freed and eventually allowed to vote, Newt Knight saw to it that they all attended the voting place. They, along with Newt and his mixed group, were told that voting papers for Republicans had not arrived, only Democrats could vote. Knight stood his ground and demanded they be given voting papers , and eventually they were - and they all voted. However, when the results were declared and recorded they were as follows: Democrats - more than 400; Republicans - 2. (This in spite of the fact that the former slaves and Knight's large mixed group of followers had all voted Republican).

Memorable quotes from the movie:
Newton Knight: I'm tired of it. You, me, all of it! We're all out there dying so they can stay rich!

Will Sumrall: [referring to Knight's young kinsman, Daniel] He died with honor.
Newton Knight: No, Will, he just died.

Newton Knight: Somehow, some way, and some time, everybody is somebody else’s nigger.

Newton Knight: From this day forward we declare the land north of Pascagoula Swamp, south of enterprise and east to the Pearl River to the Alabama border, to be a Free State of Jones. And as such we do hereby proclaim and affirm the following principles.
Number one, no man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich.
Number two, no man ought to tell another man what you got to live for or what he's got to die for.
Number three, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest and there ain't no man ought to be able to take that away from you.
Number four, every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you're a man. It's as simple as that.


anyjazz said...

The research in this one must have been extensive. The portrayals of the characters and the era are chillingly real but probably not quite as horrible as reality. Good review. Matthew is a fine actor.

Twilight said...

anyjazz ~ Thanks. Yes, I read that Gary Ross researched the subject for 10 years before starting on the movie.

I'm so pleased that Matthew has found his footing - professional reviewers are calling it " McConaissance". :-)

mike said...

I often view "Genealogy Road Show", "Who Do You Think You Are", and "Finding Your Roots", and it's always a big reveal that the subject of the genealogy interview is a mix of various racial and nationality genetics, sometimes surprising the bejeebers out of the subjects. The generic slave owner is racially white, but these shows often indicate that blacks and Amerindians owned each other, too. I remember several investigations where the rich, white male married a black woman, allowed to do so, due to wealth and status...or when a rich, white male left a vast estate to his black concubine. Much of the real history of slavery is shrouded in a cloak of white-man retelling. Would this movie have any success if Denzel Washington or a fellow-black been cast in a re-write eliminating the white aspect that McConaughey represents?

Nice live-cam action! I wish I could dip my toes into that icy-cold water, sans bears. It's sweltering here in the deep South and there's no relief in sight...we are dry as can be, measurable rainfall for over two months now. I have a lot of yardwork to complete, but I just don't have the gumption. I saw that you were cool as a cucumber for a couple of days and had some rainfall. You are definitely in the homestretch with the change of seasons only six to eight weeks away...difficult to know anymore, with global warming altering historic expectations.

Twilight said...

mike ~ We've watched a few of those genealogy shows and noticed the things you mentioned. Always interesting.

History does depend on who is/was writing it, for sure.

The matter of Newton Knight's skin colour is a matter of fact, so to have cast a black actor in the role would be wrong, wouldn't it? Had the story been a tale of fiction, then it'd be a different matter.

I don't know the answer to your question, but the fact that there have been several movies in the last few years with black casts and black heroes, and they did well - better than "Free State" likely to according to critics, might be a clue.

I've read complaints that too many movies are keen to emphasise that white people are too often the ones providing aid and becoming the heroes - but really, what was wrong with that? In those times, in America, it was the most likely thing to have happened wasn't it? Then isn't now!

Twilight said...

mike ~ Re weather - I don't recall being cool as a cucumber for a long time! Our daytime temps have been in the 90s, often high 90s for a few weeks. We had a storm last night, cleared the air a bit. This weather is not helping my ears are affected this time. Going to Doc on Monday. :-(

mike (again) said...

I became snagged on Lincoln-era literature after reading Gore Vidal's novel, "Lincoln". Vidal fastidiously researched for that novel, attempting to make it historically accurate. There are many heroes of the Civil War, both black and white, and Mexican...lots of stories to be told.

10 African-American Heroes Of The Civil War

The Young White Faces of Slavery

The Brave Black Women Who Were Civil War Spies

Female Soldiers in the Civil War On the front line

African Americans in Medicine in the Civil War Era

The Secret Relations Between Blacks and Mexicans

Re - Allergies...just saw on the weather last night that we are in for Saharan dust blowing-in this weekend.

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ Lots of material there for future film-makers then. But they'd rather make lots more super-hero, fantasy, young-adult fiction stuff.

To my mind it doesn't devalue the making of a movie about Newton Knight, just because there were plenty of other options, some of which have already been used. I saw the 1959 film "Glory" years ago and applauded its making.

Are you intimating that no stories of white men who have been helpful to black Americans should be made? I think balance is reasonable at present in the film and TV world presentations, if not always in real life.

mike (again) said...

N...O...Twilight...rolls eyes...LOL. I'm not a history buff, nor do I typically enjoy novels or biographies of the Civil War era. I first read "Lincoln" thinking it would be Vidal's usual and I kept waiting for the shift, but instead it was a solid reading of Vidal's interpretation of actual events. That led me to other books and essays about that period of American history. I was struck that my young adult, public education was from the white-man's view...white-washed. The Civil War portion of my history education, even through college, was white-centric, with the main players of the pre and post Civil War being of the white race. Native American history was subjected to that same white-washing and I was well-aware of that, but hadn't applied it toward blacks apparently. I was very astonished to find so many black individuals that were not slaves and played significant roles toward emancipation and reconstruction...many were well-educated, had money and property, and were influential socially and politically...completely opposite the stereotype that I had been taught.

Vidal's novel, "Lincoln", was meticulously researched for accuracy, yet Vidal had no choice but to fictionalize his tome. The same has to be said of "Free State of Jones". You did not view actual, historical events, but a fictional interpretation enhanced by Hollywood script writers. Oddly, the movie probably suffers from the politically correct extant, white-washed to be inclusive of blacks!

"A problem with the movie, acknowledged by Ross, is that although there is documentation of collaboration between White “Unionists” and Black maroons, self-liberators who escaped to the swamps and hills, in other parts of the South, there is no solid evidence that Knight’s forces were interracial. This is a serious admission by Ross, because interracial participation in Knight’s militia is the core of the movie’s message."

Twilight said...

mike (again) ~ The movie is a movie, it's not a documentary or a chapter in a history book. We expect some fictionalisation.

There must be evidence of some black members of Free State of Jones, as well as Rachel.

The movie doesn't have "a message". It is a story, with some basis in fact.
You appear to want to disprove anything I post these days, mike.

I was reviewing a movie we saw this week - that's all. I was making no political or racial points.