With the drama Free State of Jones, writer-director Gary Ross wants to shed some light on a part of America's history that's not often seen in films – what happened after the Civil War ended and how one man never stopped fighting for the rights of African Americans.
Free State of Jones tells the true story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a poor white farmer from Jones County, Mississippi who deserted the Confederate army and went on to lead a group of farmers and escaped slaves in a rebellion against it. Their efforts successfully thwarted much army corruption and drove the Confederates out of areas all over Mississippi. Knight and his wife, a former slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), also created one of the first mixed-race communities in the South. Knight's fight continued into the Reconstruction Era after the war ended, and he helped freed African Americans earn the right to vote and preserve their rights as American citizens.
Fandango sat down with McConaughey and Ross, who has been working on the film since 2006, for a deep conversation about Knight’s power and bravery, how many of Knight's descendants were a part of the film, and how this story is relevant today.
Fandango: What was it about Newton Knight's story that really struck you?
Gary Ross: I didn't know that much about it when I first started, just the bare bones that he led this rebellion, but the more I learned about him, I learned how remarkable it was that he did that. I did about three years of research and worked really hard to do so. And the more I learned, the more remarkable it was. That someone would stand up and have this kind of rebellion and continue that rebellion through the Reconstruction. He kept fighting for the rights of African Americans long after white allies and his white compatriots disappeared, which was true.
Fandango: Matthew, how did playing Newton affect you?
Matthew McConaughey: I knew he was someone who had a very clear sense of right and wrong, a very clear conscience. Didn't just have his beliefs and let the world pass by outside. Not very many people are willing to wage their own war based on their ideals. But it was very, very clear to Newt. We said this line the first night [he and Gary Ross] met, “When Newt's bell was rung, you couldn't unring it.” And he didn't unring it for 94 years.
Fandango: He lived to 94?
McConaughey: Yeah. There's a story of a knife fight when he was 76 against someone who made disparaging comments against his family. He was coming out of church and left a little tattoo on somebody at the end of the blade. The clarity of the man's sense of humanity and of injustice, the inability to be able to ignore something that he thought was wrong and not fair. He started off, “You can't do that to me.” And then it turned to, “You can't do that to him.” To finally, “You can't do that to anybody.” That's how he grew and the freedom he was defending and fighting for expanded. His sense of family expanded, from his own to family of man.
Fandango: It is amazing he wasn't killed for his beliefs. Was he ever targeted?
Ross: That's what's weird. No. And that's a good question because we don't really know. When the second surge of the Ku Klux Klan happened in the early 1900s, Newton was still alive at that point. The best thing I can imagine – and we don't have much record of it – is that because he had retreated to Soso, Mississippi, and was essentially living in an African-American, mixed-race community, that [the Klan] kind of wrote him off at that point. I don't know how he lived, except people seemed to be a little afraid of him.
McConaughey: That was the consensus from our travels. Even at 80 years old, it was like, “Don't mess with that guy.”
Fandango: Newton's rally speeches in the film were very powerful and moving, some of the best moments in Free State of Jones. How did you come up with that language?
Ross: They were done in a way that Newt [would understand], simple words that I think are powerful in their simplicity. Every man is a man. You stand on two legs, you're a man. That's the criterion. Or even, you cannot own a child of God. 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. I just tried to give Matthew words that had the most potency, with the least adornment. We worked on that together.
McConaughey: And real. Talk about potency, let's talk about the child-God scene. Exposing the term “n***er.” To put it out there and really expose it.
Ross: In its ugliness, and not deal with it casually the way many movies do now, not to shine a light on anybody. But to deal with the ugliness of the term and when Moses [played by Mahershala Ali] says, “No I'm not. I'm a free man.” Newt says we cannot own a child of God and we embrace that.
McConaughey: Talk about how the Abolitionist movement was based in Christianity.
Ross: It's so funny now that people think the fundamentalist Christian movement is on one side of the political spectrum, but what they don't know is that Christianity was the basis of Abolitionism at that time. It was very rooted in religion. It was important to depict that in the 19th century accurately. 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. It was a huge component and very necessary to include.
Fandango: This is a good year for this to come out, don't you think?
Ross: Well, I didn't plan it. I've been on this for 10 years… I think it's a good movie to come out next year, and the year after and I think it would be a good movie to come out last year. I felt this to be very relevant 10 years ago, sadly. I think it may be relevant 10 years from now. We hope we'll get to a place where a lot of the struggles and a lot of the racial divisions and the things that are depicted in the movie aren't present. But we are not there yet. I avoid drawing topical parallels to this year because I think it's very important to understand our history and where we came from, and this isn't something that has really gone away in 150 years.
McConaughey: You know it's interesting, we've heard it a few times today, “It's so part of this year because of the political atmosphere.” And I'm curious they are using that word “political.” Because we are not actually talking about politics here.
Ross: I avoid it not because I don't have strong opinions about this political year but because when I talk about that, it, as all things do, overwhelms the discussion about something that's really been lost. I don't know if I have something to add to this political discourse that's really that constructive. But I happen to know a lot about a period of history that's been lost and is really important to reclaim. And it's my job right now to say, it wasn't over in 1865. African Americans had their freedom wrested from them and some brave people tried to fight to maintain and preserve those freedoms. We need to know our history and not lie about it. That's a contribution I can make.
Fandango: What other movies of this kind have affected you?
McConaughey: I've never seen one that dealt with the Reconstruction Era like this one did. Whenever I see a story based in history, I want to or at least understand how it's relevant to life today. Anytime I hear a sermon from my pastor, and he's talking about stories from the Bible, I best understand them and am most turned on by them when I go, “Oh, that's right here today.” Gary's script made me feel that relevance; made me feel like this is vital right now. All these struggles and the work in progress, it's a verb. It wasn't a bow put on a package at the end of the day.
Ross: Full Metal Jacket is one of the best war movies ever made. But [with Free State of Jones] I want to lead people to their present-tense conclusions about it. I put my heart and soul into it and as honestly and bravely as I could. But it's not for me to connect those dots for people; it's for them to do themselves.
Fandango: You shot this in Louisiana, but 100 miles from Jones County, Mississippi. What was the feeling you got from the locals?
McConaughey: We had hundreds of extras from Mississippi that came out. Mississippi boys. They were happy to be on a movie set and happy to meet [us], but that was a distant second to fact that they knew about Newt Knight, and they wanted to be a part of it.
Ross: I hated to call them extras because they were a dynamic part of this company, committed to the storytelling. We chose one young man to lower the Confederate flag and raise the Union flag. He is descended from Jasper Collins, one of the people we are depicting in Free State of Jones [played by Christopher Berry]. We had many descendants of Newt and Jasper, they all wanted to be in it. They called themselves the Knight Company. Matthew, as their commander, would stage a lot of the activities when we would shoot these things.
McConaughey: Gary would say, “Alright Newt, go check in with everybody.”
Ross: He'd give them activities and help them act and help them work stuff out. There was a very communal, collaborative effort. When we were in the Knight camp, it didn't really feel like we were on a movie set. Matthew actually shot three or four days of second unit on the movie, when I couldn't be there. He took a camera and went and directed some stuff and did a beautiful job. That's an exclusive, by the way.
Fandango: Ah, so any future directing aspirations, Matthew?
McConaughey: I've got something up, commercial-wise. But I'm enjoying acting too much right now to take that on.
Free State of Jones opens in theaters June 24.