• Quote of the week

    “Today the path to total dictatorship in the United States can be laid by strictly legal means, unseen and unheard by the Congress, the President, or the people….outwardly we have a Constitutional government. We have operating within our government and political system, another body representing another form of government, a bureaucratic elite which believes our Constitution is outmoded and is sure that it is the winning side…. All the strange developments in the foreign policy agreements may be traced to this group who are going to make us over to suit their pleasure…. This political action group has its own local political support organizations, its own pressure groups, its own vested interests, its foothold within our government, and its own propaganda apparatus.”

    quoted directly from UN sources. Senator William Jenner (1954)

Free State of Jones (2016)

Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, the Mississippi farmer who led a rebellion against the Confederacy from the inside with the help of renegade slaves.

A compelling and little-known story of the Civil War period is studiously reduced to a dry and cautious history lesson in Free State of Jones. As if afraid to offend anyone or put a wrong foot in an era of racial hypersensitivity, writer-director Gary Ross tiptoes as if through a minefield in relating the fascinating tale of Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who had the temerity to lead a rebellion against the Confederacy from the inside with the help of a growing number of renegade slaves. Serious and upfront films about slavery have been scarce enough through the decades that it’s notable to have at least two of them in 2016, this one and Nate Parker’s impactful but also problematic Sundance winner The Birth of a Nation, set for release on Oct. 7 and bound to be the bigger audience-pleaser.

Returning to action four years after making the first Hunger Games installment, Ross opens well with sobering scenes of Civil War carnage, as Confederate troops are systematically mowed down while being marched directly into Union lines of fire. Ross underlines the butchery with dialogue footnotes about Dixie’s class divide, as the poor do the fighting on behalf of rich landowners, who are exempt from military service if they own at least 20 slaves.

There could scarcely be a more sympathetic member of the Confederacy than Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a medic who’s both anti-secession and anti-slavery; he’s a reb by geographic happenstance alone. The quick death of a youngster he’s taken under his wing is the last straw for the aging farmboy, who deserts and, back home, tries to protect his wife Serena (Keri Russell) from the illegal confiscation of most of their possessions; she soon sees no choice but to flee. More provocations send Newt fleeing to an impenetrable swamp where, in league with a small band of escaped slaves, he begins his career as a maverick marauder against his increasingly beleaguered Southern brethren.

In its sober and considered way, the film is absorbing at first, even for those with more than a passing knowledge of the war. Americans fighting Americans delivers a sharp sting, and Ross succeeds in establishing a thoughtful, non-sensationalistic tone as he lays the foundations for Newt’s unintended career as a leader of disenfranchised men.

Twenty-five minutes in, the focus abruptly shifts to a courthouse scene in the late 1940s, in which a Caucasian-looking man is seemingly being accused of being part-black and, therefore, vulnerable to charges of miscegenation. Some sort of related link to the Civil War story is clearly in the offing.

In a gradual, Seven Samurai-like manner, Newt builds a belief in his hitherto subservient and downcast new allies that they can strike back against their longtime tormentors. “Nobody done nothin’ like that for them before,” remarks Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a house slave at a nearby plantation who ends up doing many favors for the renegades and eventually becomes Newt’s common-law wife. The first order of business is getting a dreadful iron necklace with upward-pointing spears removed from Moses (Mahershala Ali), the clear leader among the “collective.” The second is for Newt to teach them all how to shoot; they learn very quickly.

But just as the film seems like it’s about to really click into a higher gear, it loses momentum midstream and ultimately becomes didactic in its time-jumping final act. There is much incident: Families are shattered, innocents are hanged, farms and churches are burned and the hell that is war and the fundamental unfairness of life are on abundant display.

Still, Ross is more attentive to what is historically known of Newt Knight and his times than to the imperatives of good drama; the veteran screenwriter has neglected to write any interesting or emotional scenes between Newt and Rachel, dialogue is devoted far more to issues than to quotidian banter and the Reconstruction-era scenes jump from one increasingly negative historical moment to the next. The Ku Klux Klan is born, plantations are restored to their former owners, apprenticeship becomes a euphemism for slavery, voting rights for blacks are squelched and “emancipation” is a term that must be enclosed within qualifying quotation marks. As the characters recede, the final stretch becomes a checklist of setbacks for racial fairness and equality, a build-up that concludes with a consequent outrage in the resolution of the 1940s court case.

Well before it’s over, then, Free State of Jones (which never really does satisfactorily address the issue of the three relevant Mississippi counties ever having been declared a “state”) has devolved from an engaging historical drama into a compendium of regressive racial developments. Despite endowing Newt with a right-amiable manner and an easy way with speechifying, McConaughey doesn’t get the opportunity to create a fully dimensional man — he’s given precious few intimate moments and no flashes of self-doubt. Ali is charismatic and his character’s arc is the most eventful and tragic, but Mbatha-Raw is given little opportunity to flash the talent she’s suggested previously.

Shot entirely in Louisiana, the film benefits from its lush rural locations and the lived-and-died-in look of its sets and costumes.

Courtesy: The Hollywood Reporter

The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones’

A new Hollywood movie looks at the tale of the Mississippi farmer who led a revolt against the Confederacy
By Richard Grant;
Smithsonian Magazine

With two rat terriers trotting at his heels, and a long wooden staff in his hand, J.R. Gavin leads me through the woods to one of the old swamp hide-outs. A tall white man with a deep Southern drawl, Gavin has a stern presence, gracious manners and intense brooding eyes. At first I mistook him for a preacher, but he’s a retired electronic engineer who writes self-published novels about the rapture and apocalypse. One of them is titled Sal Batree, after the place he wants to show me.

I’m here in Jones County, Mississippi, to breathe in the historical vapors left by Newton Knight, a poor white farmer who led an extraordinary rebellion during the Civil War. With a company of like-minded white men in southeast Mississippi, he did what many Southerners now regard as unthinkable. He waged guerrilla war against the Confederacy and declared loyalty to the Union.

In the spring of 1864, the Knight Company overthrew the Confederate authorities in Jones County and raised the United States flag over the county courthouse in Ellisville. The county was known as the Free State of Jones, and some say it actually seceded from the Confederacy. This little-known, counterintuitive episode in American history has now been brought to the screen in Free State of Jones, directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) and starring a grimy, scruffed-up Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight.

Knight and his men, says Gavin, hooking away an enormous spider web with his staff and warning me to be careful of snakes, “had a number of different hide-outs. The old folks call this one Sal Batree. Sal was the name of Newt’s shotgun, and originally it was Sal’s Battery, but it got corrupted over the years.”

With two rat terriers trotting at his heels, and a long wooden staff in his hand, J.R. Gavin leads me through the woods to one of the old swamp hide-outs. A tall white man with a deep Southern drawl, Gavin has a stern presence, gracious manners and intense brooding eyes. At first I mistook him for a preacher, but he’s a retired electronic engineer who writes self-published novels about the rapture and apocalypse. One of them is titled Sal Batree, after the place he wants to show me.

I’m here in Jones County, Mississippi, to breathe in the historical vapors left by Newton Knight, a poor white farmer who led an extraordinary rebellion during the Civil War. With a company of like-minded white men in southeast Mississippi, he did what many Southerners now regard as unthinkable. He waged guerrilla war against the Confederacy and declared loyalty to the Union.
In the spring of 1864, the Knight Company overthrew the Confederate authorities in Jones County and raised the United States flag over the county courthouse in Ellisville. The county was known as the Free State of Jones, and some say it actually seceded from the Confederacy. This little-known, counterintuitive episode in American history has now been brought to the screen in Free State of Jones.

Knight and his men, says Gavin, hooking away an enormous spider web with his staff and warning me to be careful of snakes, “had a number of different hide-outs. The old folks call this one Sal Batree. Sal was the name of Newt’s shotgun, and originally it was Sal’s Battery, but it got corrupted over the years.”

We reach a small promontory surrounded on three sides by a swampy, beaver-dammed lake, and concealed by 12-foot-high cattails and reeds. “I can’t be certain, but a 90-year-old man named Odell Holyfield told me this was the place,” says Gavin. “He said they had a gate in the reeds that a man on horseback could ride through. He said they had a password, and if you got it wrong, they’d kill you. I don’t know how much of that is true, but one of these days I’ll come here with a metal detector and see what I can find.”

In 2006, the filmmaker Gary Ross was at Universal Studios, discussing possible projects, when a development executive gave him a brief, one-page treatment about Newton Knight and the Free State of Jones. Ross was instantly intrigued, both by the character and the revelation of Unionism in Mississippi, the most deeply Southern state of all.
“It led me on a deep dive to understand more and more about him and the fact that the South wasn’t monolithic during the Civil War,” says Ross, speaking on the phone from New York. “I didn’t realize it was going to be two years of research before I began writing the screenplay.”

The first thing he did was take a canoe trip down the Leaf River, to get a feel for the area. Then he started reading, beginning with the five (now six) books about Newton Knight. That led into broader reading about other pockets of Unionism in the South. Then he started into Reconstruction.

“I’m not a fast reader, nor am I an academic,” he says, “although I guess I’ve become an amateur one.” He apprenticed himself to some of the leading authorities in the field, including Harvard’s John Stauffer and Steven Hahn at the University of Pennsylvania. (At the urging of Ross, Stauffer and co-author Sally Jenkins published their own book on the Jones County rebellion, in 2009.) Ross talks about these scholars in a tone of worship and adulation, as if they’re rock stars or movie stars—and none more so than Eric Foner at Columbia, the dean of Reconstruction experts.

Read more: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/true-story-free-state-jones-180958111/#BQ3rMM1v174hS9he.99

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