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Editor’s Note: Lisa Woolfork is an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture. Her commentary on film and TV interpretations of slavery has appeared on NPR and the LA Review of Books. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. This op-ed contains language that some may consider offensive.

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"The Free State of Jones" examines white privilege in the face of adversity. Lisa Woolfork writes.

Woolfork: The film says that racism is not always inherited, it is also a choice.

CNN  — 

“The Free State of Jones” emerges at a time when the number of TV shows and movies about American slavery has reached critical mass.

The experimental and richly produced WGN series “Underground” concluded in May, just weeks before the highly-anticipated Memorial Day premiere of “Roots,” a reboot of the revolutionary 1977 miniseries, on the History Channel.

A few months from now, Nate Parker’s film “Birth of a Nation,” about Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion, promises to utterly redefine the original meaning of its title (the 1915 film by white supremacist D.W. Griffith) while spotlighting the origin stories of many of today’s struggles for racial justice.

These representations of American slavery promote a nuanced view of black characters. They emphasize acts of strategic physical and emotional mobility within the totalitarian and coercive slavocracy.

Lisa Woolfork

Similarly, “The Free State of Jones” focuses not only on a complete portrait of a disaffected white character (the real-life Newt Knight, portrayed by Matthew McConaughey) during the antebellum period, but also considers the constructs of whiteness itself.

While some reviewers of the film diagnose it as suffering from what many describe as a “white savior” complex – stories in which white characters become the vehicle of deliverance for-African Americans – “Free State of Jones” is actually doing something much more significant with McConaughey’s character. To borrow a phrase from “Grey’s Anatomy” star Jesse Williams’ electrifying speech at the recent BET Awards, this film exposes “this invention called whiteness.”

This intervention is a significant one, because the social meanings and consequences of whiteness can be elusive. One achievement of “The Free State of Jones” is the way in which it imagines its protagonist forfeiting his ties to the Confederacy, and thereby abdicating some of the benefits of whiteness – benefits eagerly embraced and violently defended by other whites in the film.

James Baldwin, offering advice for combating racism in 1963, directly addressed white people’s role: “What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it.”

This was likely a bitter pill for many whites to swallow in 1963. The film suggests that Newt Knight seriously contemplated a version of Baldwin’s prescription, 100 years before he suggested it.

A Smithsonian magazine profile on the “true story” sums up the premise that motivates most of the film’s action, “In the spring of 1864, the Knight Company overthrew the Confederate authorities in Jones County and raised the United States flag over the county courthouse in Ellisville. The county was known as the “Free State of Jones,” and some say it actually seceded from the Confederacy.”

More compelling yet subtle, however, is the way Newt’s actions reflect Baldwin’s query as to “why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place.”

A yeoman operating a sustainable family farm in Mississippi before joining the Confederate army, Knight has already rejected the large-scale cotton economy that required a steady stream of subjugated labor. Unlike the other small farmers he knows, Knight’s rejection of the dominant economy carries with it a more clear-eyed understanding—the type of understanding Baldwin would later demand of white people.

Perhaps Knight had already looked “in his heart” but from early stages in the film, Newt sees that the whole system was a lie.

For the planter class, “it was necessary to have a nigger” to exploit in the slave-agricultural system. For the other white people, “it was necessary to have a nigger” to maintain their false sense of social standing in an economic system that was exploiting them as well — a sleight of hand played by the planter class to distract them from their own subjugation.

Later, Newt’s early experiences as a deserter reinforce the perils of social marginalization, and trace a path away from his reliance on whiteness as a social category. Newt’s military desertion makes him a traitor and a fugitive vulnerable to execution if caught.

In his flight, Newt slips away from the protective confines of whiteness and embraces a kinship of social alienation with fugitive slaves.

According to historian Victoria Bynum, who wrote the book on which the film is based, “Several witnesses insisted that whites who associated too intimately with blacks should themselves be classified Negroes.” For them, Newt’s whiteness had been compromised. He is hounded, a word whose etymology is chillingly displayed in the film, by a pack of what his wife calls “nigger dogs,” trained to hunt and capture escaped slaves. He narrowly evades capture, but not before a dog mauls him.

Moses, the fugitive who attends to Newt’s festering dog bites after he seeks sanctuary in a swamp with escaped slaves, wryly remarks, “You must taste as good as we do,” to ironic chuckles from the group. Later, while explaining why he deserted the army, Newt tells them, “I ain’t gon’ die so they can get rich selling their cotton.” Moses replies, “That’s why we left too.” They all laugh.

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These exchanges provide more than moments of levity in a film of spectacular violence. Rather, they signal Newt’s burgeoning affection and mutual respect for black people. This intimacy is the foundation for what will become Newt’s radical theology and social practice of cross-racial brotherhood – both of which form the basis for the establishment of the Free State of Jones County.

The charter for the Free State of Jones County includes a provision that explicitly distinguishes between property and people. In the film, Newt declares, “you can’t own a child of God.” And though this claim was widely held by abolitionists in the 19th century, it represents a major departure from the prevalent Southern Christianity of the time, which was based on white supremacy where churches owned slaves, minsters preached black compliance, and, later, the KKK would be founded as a Christian organization.

It’s also noteworthy that the film is based upon a true story, and that Newt Knight’s real-life interracial intimacies reverberated long after the conclusion of the Civil War.

In 1948, Knight’s great-grandson Davis Knight was tried and convicted for miscegenation, a crime “against the peace and dignity of the State of Mississippi,” that carried a penalty of five years in the penitentiary. Davis, who had married a white woman two years earlier, was discovered to have descended from Newt Knight and Rachel Knight, a black woman, rather than Newt’s first, white, wife. Thanks to his one-eighth black ancestry, Davis was considered black and convicted. The Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the verdict the following year—largely, some speculate, because the state feared a precedent that established racial boundaries so flexible that a man could be deemed legally black in 1948 but white in 1949.

In a pivotal scene in the film, Newt Knight and his troops hide in the woods to ambush a Confederate supply wagon. When the unseen assailants are asked to identify themselves, one replies, “We are the free men of Jones County.”

For a person to claim freedom, or occupy a free state, one must first identify a condition of bondage, and define oneself against it. Newt Knight rejected the seductive allure of white supremacy during a time when whiteness ensured social power and authority over all black people. In this way, he dismantles the platitude—”he was a man of his time”—used to cover the sins of many historical figures.

Acting in ways incomprehensible to most of his white 19th century peers, Knight was also a man of the future. He was poised to reveal the truth about the false construct of whiteness in this claim from James Baldwin because, in part, he lived it: “And [they] have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers.”

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Lisa Woolfork is an associate professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author of Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture. Her commentary on film and TV interpretations of slavery has appeared on NPR and the LA Review of Books. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. This op-ed contains language that some may consider offensive.