Newton Knight is a little-known but controversial figure in the history of the American Civil War: A Southerner opposed to slavery who led a guerilla army in Mississippi after deserting from the Confederate army in 1862. Jones County, where Knight farmed, had been opposed to secession in 1861, and a number of men from that county (having little faith in the cause itself) deserted in the summer and fall of 1862. The failure of the Confederate government to provide their soldiers with food and supplies after the Siege of Corinth was one factor in these desertions. Knight’s own reasons for deserting included his learning that Confederate authorities had seized possessions from his farm, including the family horse. But some sources assert that Knight’s principal reason for desertion was the Confederacy’s passing of the “Twenty Negro Law,” which granted wealthy southerners exemption from military service if they owned twenty slaves or more. The idea of dying to preserve the rarified lifestyle of people who were themselves not required to fight because of their wealth may have been the last straw for Knight.
In October of 1862, Knight was reported AWOL. Returning to Jones County, he ultimately became leader of a company of deserters, their numbers swelled by many more deserters after the fall of Vicksburg. The Knight Company, as it came to be known, engaged in at least fourteen skirmishes with Confederate troops in Jones, Jasper, Covington, Perry and Smith counties, and were supported by farm women and slaves from the area. Some historians consider the company legitimate freedom-fighters, some consider them no more than bandits. Whatever they were, the Knight Company did capture Ellisville in March 1864 and raised a Union flag over the Jones County courthouse. Early in 1864, they sent a letter to General Sherman announcing that they had declared their independence from the Confederacy, and in July the Natchez Courier reported that Jones County had succeeded from the Confederacy, thus becoming the “Free State of Jones.”
All of this has “Epic Civil War Movie!” written all over it. Enter Gary Ross, the writer/director nominated for Best Screenplay Oscars for Big (1989), Dave (1993), and Seabiscuit (2003), and last seen in the director’s chair for the first installment of the blockbuster Hunger Games films (his was the good one, remember?). And Ross brings in Oscar-winning actor Matthew McConaughey to play Knight, and several other talented actors come along as well: to name but a few, Keri Russell (from TV’s Felicity and The Americans) plays Knight’s first wife Serena; Guga Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Concussion) plays the slave Rachel; and Mahershala Ali (Remy on TV’s House of Cards) plays Moses, an escaped slave who becomes and early member of Knight’s company. Ross provides a script that has the perceived virtue of being “based on a true story,” and voila! We have a can’t-miss dramatization of a fascinating and little-known facet of American history (albeit not likely to appear in any history books approved by the school board in McConaughey’s home state of Texas).
In Ross’s version, Knight is disgruntled by the excessive taxation of small farmers like himself, and infuriated by the exemption of the wealthy from service in the bloody war, but the incident that finally triggers his desertion is more personal and emotional: the drafting of a young kinsman of his, no more than a boy, who is almost immediately killed in battle. “He died with glory,” one of his fellow soldiers tells Knight. “No,” Knight replies, “he just died.” There is a lot going on in that exchange, and a powerful subtext emerges in Ross’s script that seems to be an indictment of the Southern attitude, one that remained even decades later, that the Confederacy had sent her sons out to defend a noble way of life, and that such a grand old cause was glorious. But Knight’s point here seems to be that “glory” is something that rich people use to convince the poor to go out and die to defend the rich people’s way of life. That such an indictment might occur to a poor southern farmer at this point in history may seem somewhat anachronistic—we are more used to seeing it in poetry and literature coming out of World War I, like Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms or Wilfrid Owen’s poetry (“If in some smothering dreams you too could pace/Behind the wagon that we flung him in…My friend, you would not tell with such high zest/To children ardent for some desperate glory/The old lie: Dulce et decorum est/pro patria mori” [ie., “Sweet and fitting is it to die for the fatherland”]). But the “Twenty Negro Law” must have had the same sort of effect on small farmers in the south—they just had no poet to rail against it.
Ross’s film continues as Knight finds refuge in a swamp with runaway slaves, including Moses. As their ranks swell with more deserters, racist attitudes surface among the whites regarding the blacks, but Knight puts down such squabbling by telling the deserters they are just as much “Niggers” (sorry, that is the word used in the film) as the blacks: “They just picked cotton for them. You were willing to die for them.” “Them” of course refers to the rich landowners. The scene is interesting in that it may portray Knight’s own world view (perhaps not only the fictional one in this film, but the historical Knight as well, who did marry the former slave Rachel). But the scene certainly does not express the sentiments of most of Knight’s Company, nor of the south in general (a fact that becomes all too clear in the movie’s last section, dealing with the Reconstruction era and the rise of the KKK). And if this is Ross’s assertion, it does ignore some real historical facts: Slaves had no civil rights at all, because they were not considered fully human. Slaves could be whipped, killed, abused (as Rachel is). The white soldiers, drafted into a war they disagreed with, still had led lives of privilege by comparison. While it may even be true that in practice those with money and power have always used the poor and disadvantaged, including slaves, for their own ends, the equation of the two situations at this point might seem, to some, an oversimplification, perhaps even insulting.
Knight’s army defends the poor farmers of the area against excessive government exploitation, fights against Confederate units sent into the swamp to root them out, and ultimately does raise the Stars and Stripes over the Jones County courthouse. In all the danger and turmoil, Knight’s wife Serena takes their son and abandons their farm (the historical fact is that Confederate troops looted and burned Knight’s farm). Knight then does ultimately marry Rachel, and has a child with her. The Knight’s Company breaks up after Sherman declines to send them aid, but Knight keeps some of his men, playing out his revolt until the war’s end. McConaughey is impressive in the part, bringing a kind of confident and reasonable charisma to the role, along with a bit of necessary hubris that allows him to do what he does. Ali is wise and sympathetic as the high-principled Moses, and Mbatha-Raw is likeable and believable as Rachel. Russell is memorable as the sometimes bitter, sometimes forlorn Serena. But it must be admitted that by the end of the war, they are all used up.
This is where the film takes an ill-advised wrong turn. Ross had begun making a film with a clear story arc dealing with a forgotten group of Yankee sympathizers during the Civil War, and an exploration of their possible motives, but inexplicably switches mid-stream and decides to make the film a shapeless biography of the life of Newton Knight, showing us pretty much everything else he did during the years of Reconstruction. Unfortunately, as with many film biographies, this amounts to stringing together several isolated moments with a small connecting thread (in this case, the thread is “Newton Knight stood up for black people”) rather than creating an integrated plot where scenes have cause-effect relationships, and where there is conflict, rising action, a climax, and resolution. None of this occurs in the last third of the film.
Add to that the interesting but ultimately irrelevant sub-plot, which the film returns to occasionally, of Knight’s great-grandson Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) on trial for the crime of miscegenation in 1948 Mississippi, because he married a white woman and it can be proven that his great-grandmother was Rachel, the former slave—thus making him 1/8 black, and hence legally barred from marrying anyone white. This could have been fascinating, but as it is, it is undeveloped, connected only tangentially to the rest of the film, and so more annoying than enlightening.
What we end up with is a mish-mash of unrelated chunks of stuff. But it is a well-meaning mish-mash of unrelated chunks of stuff, and you can probably learn something about history (though not 100% accurate history) from watching this movie, as you could from an amateur presentation by a nonexpert in an undergraduate history class. As a film, though, I’m gonna have to give this one a gentleman’s C, and two Jacqueline Susanns.