The name Newton (Newt) Knight was, until recently, one that wouldn’t have garnered much recognition if it were to come up in conversation. But thanks to Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones starring Matthew McConaughey, it will be more recognizable to the general public. Though this is not to say that Gary Ross suddenly picked up on Knight’s story, and miraculously made it into a Hollywood movie. Prior to the movies release, there were a handful of books published about Knight and his efforts to create his own free state of Jones.
The first being written by his own son, Thomas Jefferson Knight, in 1935 titled The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight and His Company, and the Free State of Jones County. Within, Knight’s son portrayed his father as a Robin Hood like figure who was fiercely determined to stand up for his beliefs. Following Thomas Knight’s book was a book by Ethel Knight, a grandniece of Newt, published in 1951 titled, The Echo of the Black Horn. Ethel Knight’s book was a complete departure from Thomas’ previous work in that Ethel saw Newt as a traitorous murderer, and sought to denounce Newt as much as possible. The difference in opinion between Thomas and Ethel’s books reflects a sharp divide within the Knight family, where some saw him as a hero, and others as a traitor to his heritage.
Following the work of his ancestors, Newt’s story wouldn’t be picked up again until 1984 when Rudy Leverett, a writer, set out to capture the legend of Newt Knight on paper in an effort to tell the truest story possible, as a result, Leverett wrote the Legend of the Free State of Jones. The next iteration of Knight’s story would be told by Sally Jenkins, a journalist and John Stauffer a professor of English, American Studies, and African American Studies at Harvard in The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy in 2010. More recent works include historian Victoria Bynum’s The Free State of Jones, Movie Edition: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War published earlier this year, and historian, film consultant, and former dean of Jones County Junior College Jim Kelly’s The Free State of Jones and The Echo of the Black Horn: Two Sides of the Life and Activities of Captain Newt Knight, set to be published early next month. That said, Gary Ross’ interpretation appeared to offer a solid account of Newt and his efforts, and could potentially offer viewers a way to explore history on a more singular level.
The movie itself begins by offering viewers a brief but satisfactorily accurate portrayal of what it was like to be a soldier during the Civil War as the movie begins with Newt as a soldier, and certainly does not shy away from gore, although it is not unnecessary. I appreciated it, even if it was an unexpected part of the film, because it helps to introduce potentially unaware viewers to the reality of the Civil War, while also staying accurate to the time period. The real strength of the movie, to this viewer at least, was the way that Gary Ross chose to approach the issue of Reconstruction. Of course, with a two and a half hour limit, not all aspects of Reconstruction were going to be explored, but I thought that all the major and relevant points of Reconstruction as they related to the film were nicely illustrated.
In very general terms, to me it felt like Newt Knight and his story, while (obviously) important featured within a broader timeline of Reconstruction, and functioned nicely as a way to illustrate to movie goers, the issues and stages of Reconstruction and its overall impact on our history as Americans. While I by no means loved the movie, I did find it to be a surprisingly refreshing approach to history, particularly of the Civil War coming out of Hollywood. Much of this likely came from Gary Ross’ having worked with Eric Foner prior to producing the film in order to better understand the subject. Overall, I would recommend the movie to everyone who is willing to tolerate a little gore, and is interested in the story of Newt Knight and the process of Reconstruction.
Michaela Smith, American history, firstname.lastname@example.org