It’s a long way from Hollywood, yet a swampy corner of southeast Mississippi has given the film world its latest hero — or maybe antihero.
His name is Newton Knight, born 180 years ago and played by Matthew McConaughey in the The Free State of Jones, which opened around the country on June 24.
The movie tells the true (okay, true-ish) story of Knight and a small band of farmers and slaves who successfully fought their fellow Civil War-era Confederates to declare Jones County, Miss., loyal to the United States — and free of slavery.
McConaughey, in an interview with The Daily Beast, described Knight as divinely inspired even if he “was not a ‘turn the other cheek’ New Testament guy,” as the actor put it.
“Knight had a moral code rooted in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence: love thy neighbor as thyself, and all men are created equal,” McConaughey, 46, said. “So he had a very radical relationship with his own independence, and interdependence — which is very American. Extremely American.”
That’s good Hollywood P.R. Here’s the history behind the real Knight, which is just as powerful:
Knight enlisted in the Confederate Army at the beginning of the war, in July 1861. Some scholars say he did so unwillingly, while others — most notably Victoria E. Bynum who wrote the book the movie is named for and based on — thinks he loved being a soldier.
“He was a Primitive Baptist who didn’t drink, didn’t cuss, doted on children, and could reload and fire a double-barreled, muzzle-loading shotgun faster than anyone else around,” Wyatt Moulds, a history professor and direct descendant of Knight told The Smithsonian magazine.
“Even as an old man, if someone rubbed him the wrong way, he’d have a knife at their throat in a heartbeat. A lot of people will tell you that Newt was just a renegade, out for himself, but there’s good evidence that he was a man of strong principles who was against secession, against slavery, and pro-Union.”
After a big Confederate defeat in late 1862, Knight and other Jones County men deserted.
Bynum writes that the tipping point was the passage of the “Twenty Negro Law,” which excused one white man from the war for every 20 black slaves he owned. Knight and most of the men he fought with were small farmers with no slaves.
Back at their farms, Knight and other deserters found their families starving, as Confederate officials taxed them to the brink, taking livestock, crops, food, and anything else they wanted for the army.
In October 1863, a Confederate major, Amos MacLemore, arrived in Ellisville, the seat of Jones County, to hunt deserters. On the night of Oct. 5, someone — most likely Knight — shot and killed him. A band of deserters and their supporters then elected Knight their leader.
They raised an American flag over the Jones County courthouse and declared it the “Free State of Jones.”
“They vowed to resist capture, defy tax collectors, defend each other’s homes and farms, and do what they could to aid the Union,” Richard Grant wrote in Smithsonian.
The movie is written and directed by Gary Ross, who also has Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games to his credit.
In one pivotal scene, a slave (played by Mahershala Ali) declares he is not a man because he is not free. In writing Knight’s response — an entire speech — he told Fandango he thought about irreducible arguments the real Knight might have believed.
“You cannot own a child of God,” Ross said. “If we are all God’s children, then no one can be owned. You’re innately free. Those rights come from your Creator. And so, they are simple ideas but simple ideas because they are irreducible are powerful.”
They are also drawn from the Bible and were the foundation of the abolitionist movement — another historically accurate part of the film that McConaughey and Ross stress.
“So in the same way we don’t shy away from bloodshed in the beginning, we are not going to shy away from Scripture as it relates to what this movie is because it might not be vogue in a hip or secular society,” Ross told Fandango, a movie news website. “It was a huge component and very necessary to include.”
Needless to say, Knight survives the war — even if the Free State of Jones did not.
And the film follows Knight through the post-war years, when he had three families with three different women and fathered dozens of mixed-race children — something Grant, who interviewed contemporary residents of Jones County, says made him unpopular there.
Knight died in 1922 at the age of 84. His grave, and that of his second wife, a former slave, are tended by fans in Jones County today — even as historians continue to spar over whether Knight was a hero or a heel.
“It happened,” McConaughey said in the Daily Beast interview.
“It’s real. So let’s sit here and go, ‘Yeah, guess what man, the world is not all clean and neat. We want to expect the best in everyone but we have to understand that we all have good and bad in us, and these are some times when we’ve made mistakes, there are some things where people were just wrong, and this is how we’ve improved and are still evolving.’”