Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Rebel with a Cause Based on True Story, 'Free State of Jones' Offers Insightful Look at Civil War

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Rebel with a Cause Based on True Story, 'Free State of Jones' Offers Insightful Look at Civil War

Article excerpt

Miss Dorothy Burnworth, my brilliant fifth-grade history teacher in Wilkinsburg, began her Civil War lecture with memorably fiery words: "Do not believe the myth that Robert E. Lee and the Confederates were chivalrous gentlemen, fighting to preserve their Southern honor. They were traitors to the Union, fighting to preserve their slaves."

A World War II WAC, Miss Burnworth was a Yankee from Somerset County, who lost uncles and cousins at nearby Gettysburg. Her views were understandable.

Newton Knight - who shared those views - was a valiant Confederate soldier from rural Mississippi. His amazingly true story, "Free State of Jones," is the year's most important historical film - certainly the most ambitious - as well as the longest and saddest.

Simple farmer Knight (Oscar-winning Matthew McConaughey) doubted the Confederate cause from the start, when the Confederacy's "20 Negro Law" allowed wealthy plantation owners to avoid military service if they owned 20 or more slaves. "We're gonna die so they can stay rich?" he wonders. It's a radical, and potentially treasonous, idea.

Even so, he fights nobly in the bloody Battle of Corinth (4,000 rebel casualties), caring for a doomed, terrified boy amid the hellish noise and carnage. Returning home with the body, he finds hardscrabble Jones County ravaged by the South's own predatory troops, whose "confiscation quotas" permit the theft of all crops and farm animals. Newt is soft-spoken, religious and slow to anger, but he's a battle-tested leader, and he's had enough. When folks come to him for help, he gives it, leading fellow farmers and local slaves in a full-scale armed rebellion against the rebellion.

His headquarters: the creepy safety of Mississippi's snake-infested swamps and bayous, where you have to know the deep vs. shallow parts, and runaway slaves are the only people who do. He hooks up there with a small band of them, including resourceful Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and powerful Moses (Mahershala Ali), still wearing a hideous iron collar with protruding spikes - the last of his master's attempts to tame him, a necklace rather than crown of thorns. …

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