The Free State of Jones once existed in America and was, at the time it stood, a commune spanning a massive stretch of land through Mississippi, terrifying the Confederacy with a small army made up of poor white farmers and runaway slaves.
Going into this film, I was expecting that, like many other war films, there would be a bit of commentary embedded within about today’s political scene. Yet I was totally blown away here, instead of getting a Civil War film you get an epic class warfare film that reaches into the pantheon of great historical literature, at different points alluding to the contemporary journalism of Marx and Engels, who wrote a great deal on the American war for Horace Greeley, as well as the magnum opus of W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America.
Newton Knight, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a Confederate field nurse who deserts when he is tired of seeing young men die in a war for rich men’s cotton and little else. He hides out in a swamp with a group of free slaves, including the valiant Moses Washington (played by Mahershala Ali). When a group of Confederate officers, led by Lieutenant Barbour (Brad Carter), begin to requisition civilian property in a fashion that favors the 1% and leaves the 99% high and dry, these war widows, sons left to defend the family while father goes to war, and a trickle of Confederate enlisted men who are sick of the carnage, slowly join the group. As a fully-integrated camp, they hate the Confederates. But they also have very little love for the Union and the northern industrialists who they defend. So they become a small third, independent state, repudiating the duopoly, that grows into a vivid example of what a functional American social democratic society can be.
They allow these working people to own small plots of land to till and farm, much akin to the ideas promoted by Benjamin Tucker, Lysander Spooner, William B. Greene and Josiah Warren around and after this time as part of what would later become known as “unterrified Jeffersonianism”, individualist anarchism. Keeping with this philosophy, they uphold individual rights regardless of race or gender and grant autonomy as a central tenet of their system, saying “no man aught to tell another man what he’s got to live for or what he’s got to die for”. Yet rather than allowing this individualism to fuel a nihilistic, corporate Libertarian dystopia, it instead proves to be the mortar that builds a mighty fortress that poses a significant threat to the rich on both sides of the Mason-Dixon. After the war, these folks end up becoming a force fighting for justice in the Reconstruction period, coming into harsh contact with the proto-fascist Ku Klux Klan and trying to preserve a chance for democracy.
This is the perfect movie to watch with a Trump supporter. For this entire year, I have been watching the Trump people with a mixture of horror and guarded admiration. While their candidate is a complete disaster, the fact is that these voters are not fascists, they are pissed-off poor white working class people who are pushing back against the neoliberal political order, much in the way that many working class British voters have lately done likewise with their yes vote for the Brexit. It is not that I necessarily respect Trump voters, even though their refusal to accept any other candidate shows fortitude and resilience, as much as I have less respect for white middle class Bernie Sanders supporters who, though they do not live in a swing state, are now saying we must compromise and vote for a “lesser evil” who is still evil. No, instead we should be doing like the people in The Free State of Jones did and accept that the only path to true liberation is casting off the duopoly. Trump has broken the Republicans perhaps forever, much as Knight broke the Confederacy, now it is the job of progressives to break the irreparable and irredeemable Democrats. This film can be used to break down some prejudices that exist within Trump voters and begin building class solidarity.
The fact is that northern progressives and lefties need to work on something that hinders their efforts to be progressive, a condescending, look-down-your-nose elitist air that shows contempt for the rednecks. Yet for all the harping they do about class solidarity, these progressives forget the word redneck comes from a Southern miners strike, that the rebellious workers who got into a pitched battle with management were wearing red bandannas on their necks for reasons that had less to do with blood and soil as much as proletarian toil. Go figure.