RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
Now we turn to a Civil War saga that you may have never heard of. It's the story of Newton Knight, a confederate deserter from Mississippi who helped lead a ragtag army of poor farmers and escaped slaves to revolt against the collapsing Confederacy.
A new film builds on the historical records that do remain, casting Knight not only as a tough and crafty guerrilla fighter, but as a compassionate and politically progressive leader as well. He's played with a kind of sinewy intensity by Matthew McConaughey.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FREE STATE OF JONES")
MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Newton Knight) We declare the land north of Pascagoula swamp, south of Enterprise and east of the Pearl River to the Alabama border to be a free state of Jones.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yeah.
SUAREZ: The movie is called "Free State Of Jones." It was written and directed by Gary Ross. He also wrote and directed "Seabiscuit" and the first "Hunger Games" film. Gary Ross joins me now from NPR West. Welcome to the program.
GARY ROSS: Thank you so much. Nice to be here.
SUAREZ: So to begin with, who was Newton Knight?
ROSS: Well, he was a poor farmer from southeast Mississippi, a yeoman farmer. He owned no slaves even though his grandfather did, so he eschewed slavery in that respect. And when the Confederacy instituted a law where non-slaveholders could be drafted but slaveholders could not, it was sort of a breaking point for a lot of poor yeoman farmers in the area. So Newt deserted, as many did.
But when he got back to Mississippi, he found the Confederate Conscription Calvary confiscating tremendous amount of goods and produce and textiles in the - what they called the tax-in-kind program, but it was an abuse of taxation. And he began to lead a revolt in that area of Mississippi against the onerous taxation.
But the amazing thing about Newt is that, once he glimpsed one kind of freedom and was willing to fight for it, he couldn't put a limit on that, and he ended up fighting for the rights of African-Americans all the way through Reconstruction, with some very, very surprising and committed behavior on the part of fighting for racial justice in a way that very few white Southerners did at the time. So he's really a remarkable figure.
SUAREZ: Let's play a clip from the film. This is a scene where Newton Knight, played by Matthew McConaughey, declares that Jones is a free state, and here he explains the underlying principles behind it.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FREE STATE OF JONES")
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Newton Knight) No man ought to stay poor so another man can get rich. No man ought to tell another man what he's got to live for or what he's got to die for. What you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest, and ain't no man ought to be able to take that away from you.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Yeah.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Newton Knight) Every man is a man. If you walk on two legs, you're a man.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Right.
MCCONAUGHEY: (As Newton Knight) It's as simple as that.
SUAREZ: Gary Ross, did you have to resist the temptation to make Newton Knight a 21st-century man? I mean, when you listen to that statement, there's tax rebellion in there, the politics of wealth and poverty. It almost sounds like a Libertarian Party convention. Did you have to keep it clear that this was 1863?
ROSS: Well, it's so funny because, you know, I wrote that stuff just based on what was going on at the time with Newt in that area of Mississippi after years of research. The fact that it resonates today I think says a lot more about today than my writing process. You know, I think that there are certain things that aren't resolved, and there are certain issues that have unfortunately lingered.
But I think one of the interesting things about that is you say it's Libertarian, but you really see an alliance or a coalition that can apply easily to the fight for racial justice in the same way that you could apply it to poor white farmers. And this was the coalition that was being built and that ultimately proved unfortunately very fragile, which is that when he says, what you put in the ground is yours to tend and harvest, and no man should take that away from you.
Well, Sherman issued a thing called Field Order 15 at the end of the war that promised 40 acres and a mule to every freedman and their families in Georgia and the Carolinas. And this was something that all freedmen were hungry for, needed and demanded because it spoke to self-sufficiency after emancipation. So it sounds completely Libertarian. It also sounds what - exactly what every African-American in the south needed, demanded and wanted and was promised.
But that was sadly denied them, so it's a very interesting combination of things.
SUAREZ: And it ends up being a critical part of this story because you don't roll credits with the end of the Civil War. Instead, you go on to chronicle the difficulties of Reconstruction, when the former Confederate elites continue to hold power and land and control the courts, and they're able to command and enforce labor under a different name. It's not slavery anymore, but takes other, more diabolical forms.
That's a less-told part of American history, isn't it?
ROSS: Oh, very much so. I mean, you know, I think we're the first movie to deal with the post-war era since "Gone With The Wind" or D.W. Griffith's "Birth Of A Nation," both of which are pretty horrendous depictions of that period - I mean, "Gone With The Wind" and it's sort of romanticism of this culture. And really, "Birth Of A Nation" is just a really horrible racist tract that engages in such revisionism that it's almost unwatchable in some ways.
So I was really glad to have the opportunity to set the record straight about the post-war era about Reconstruction, to catch up to the scholarship, which now looks at it in a much more objective and open way. And this is where the fight for freedom really occurred, this is the beating heart of the Civil War era, happens immediately after the war is over, when those issues of what freedom is going to mean are really enjoined.
Sadly, it ends in defeat in 1876, in the beginning of the Jim Crow era. But for a time, these issues were fought and engaged. And I think it's one of the most fascinating periods of American history.
SUAREZ: You take us forward 80 years to Newton Knight's own descendants and a miscegenation, a racial intermarriage case in Mississippi that seeks to void a marriage and jail Newton Knight's grandson. Did it feel like you were putting too much in there? Why - it was terrific, and it provoked a very interesting conversation between my teenage daughter and I after the movie. But are you giving us a lot to work with in this movie?
ROSS: Well, I mean, obviously not, if it provoked a great conversation between your teenage daughter and you. I mean, the intention of this movie is to provoke conversation. And it is to do something that's comprehensive.
Look, I've done a lot of, like, tidy Hollywood narratives in my life. I certainly know how to do that. I began by writing big. I made the "Hunger Games," I made "Seabiscuit." You know, but I felt this thing deserved a comprehensive, full and complete look.
And I felt that it was my responsibility - you know, having been a student of it first and then a filmmaker involved in it later. I did nothing but study this material for two years before I ever even started to write the script. I couldn't imagine doing a version of this movie that ignored Reconstruction, for example. I could have done one. You know, Newton Knight stages a rebellion, he goes into Ellisville, he beats the Confederates and he raises a flag over the courthouse. Look, that happened, and I could have left everybody with a wonderful feeling as they walked out of the theater.
But it wouldn't have been true because right after that war was over and Andrew Johnson started to repatriate Confederates and give them their land and their power back - and the minute they began to pass onerous forms of legislation that were actually a form of re-enslavement - these issues just continued. And I wasn't going to tie it up in kind of a pretty Hollywood bow.
So if it's sprawling, if it's big, if it's epic, well, that was intentional, but that was really the product of a lot of rigorous work. And I thought that the material demanded it. So we need to turn on the lights and educate ourselves about this period of history, not simply rely on the myths.
SUAREZ: Gary Ross is a director and screenwriter. His latest film, "Free State Of Jones," opened yesterday, and he spoke to us from our studios in Culver City. Gary Ross, thanks so much for joining us.
ROSS: It was a pleasure. Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.