The Civil War is the backdrop for the new Matthew McConaughey movie Free State of Jones, in theaters June 24. McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a Southerner who deserts the Confederate Army and leads local farmers and slaves in a rebellion against the Confederacy. It's an incredible story — almost so much so that it seems unbelievable. But it involves a real historical time period, so it's natural to wonder if Free State of Jones is a true story.
As amazing as the concept is, the movie is in fact based on real events and a real man. Newton Knight was a farmer in Jones County, Mississippi who was opposed to secession but was conscripted to fight for the Confederate Army in 1862. A number of factors led to Knight's desertion a year later, and he subsequently joined forces with other Jones County residents — white and black alike — to rebel against the Confederate authorities in the area. Knight was deemed leader of this resistance movement, and the county eventually declared its own independence from the Confederacy. It's an astounding true story that feels inherently cinematic, and so it's understandable that filmmakers would want to make a screen adaptation. But with such a complex historical narrative, cautions had to be taken to ensure that Free State of Jones stayed as true as possible to the real-life story.
Director Gary Ross told The New York Times that he dedicated himself to researching Knight's story in order to make sure that the movie would be historically accurate. "I stopped my life to read and study for two years before I even started writing a script," he said. In an interview with Moviefone, Ross elaborated further about the preparation process for Free State of Jones. The director said, "I studied with some of the best historians. I studied formally at Harvard with John Stauffer, who's head of the American Civilization department. I learned a lot from him." He added, "There was a lot of preparation that went into making the world of Newt Knight make sense to me, because I had to make sense of who he was."
Once Ross had a solid grasp of the main character, he had to find the right person to embody Knight. Thankfully, along came McConaughey, with his Southern drawl and previous experience portraying real life characters. Ross also told MovieFone that McConaughey has a very similar physical appearance to that of Knight. "It felt so organic," the director said.
It's worth noting, though, that this isn't the first time that Knight's story has gotten attention. Several books have been written about him and Jones County, and the 1948 movie Tap Roots was loosely based on his experiences. But with Free State of Jones, Knight is being memorialized on screen for the first time in the 21st century. His story is sure to deliver both historical knowledge and lessons that are still applicable today.
Images: STX Entertainment (2)