”He was a freedom fighter in many ways, and such a bad ass, that I was immediately attracted to the character. As a filmmaker, you dream about finding a character like this,” Gary Ross muses. “I am fortunate that I was able to find him and I’m incredibly fortunate that I’m able to tell this story against this size of a canvas.”
Based on Oscar-nominated writer/director Gary Ross’ original screenplay, the epic action-drama Free State of Jones tells the extraordinary story of a little known episode in American history during which Newt Knight, a fearless Mississippi farmer, led an unlikely band of poor white farmers and runaway slaves in an historic armed rebellion against the Confederacy during the height of the Civil War.
Juxtaposing and complementing the narrative in intermittent flash-forwards is the 1948 trial of The State of Mississippi versus Davis Knight, the key defendant in a ground breaking miscegenation trial, and the great-grandson of Newt Knight and his common law wife and former slave, Rachel.
Standing side by side in opposition to a ‘rich man’s war, and poor man’s fight,’ Knight’s brave followers took up arms against the Confederacy and established an indomitable rebel regiment deep in rural Mississippi’s impenetrable swamps, giving them a tactical advantage despite being vastly outgunned and outnumbered. A visionary leader, Knight’s passionate opposition to exploitation and prejudice and his establishment of the region’s first mixed-race community, ultimately distinguished him as a celebrated and alternately vilified presence long after the war.
Resurrecting A Legend – Crafting The Story And Years Of Research
Free State of Jones has been a project of intense passion for writer/director Gary Ross for 10 years.
Ross, who began his film career as the screenwriter of the beloved comedy Big, starring Tom Hanks, and the political comedy Dave starring Kevin Kline (both of which earned him original screenplay Oscar nominations), is a lifelong student of politics and American history.
In 1998 he was able to combine these various interests with his directorial debut – the 1950’s set fantasy comedy-drama Pleasantville, which he also wrote. And in 2003 for his second directorial effort, he helmed his own adaptation of the true Depression-era sports drama, Seabiscuit, which earned Ross his third and fourth Oscar nominations, as a producer of the Best Picture nominee and for his adapted screenplay.
Soon after the release of Seabiscuit, Newt Knight’s story came to the filmmaker’s attention. There had only been a handful of books and and one misrepresentative Hollywood film about Knight and his rebellion.
“When I first learned of the story of Newt Knight,” Ross recalls, “it was amazing to me that this unique hero had been kind of lost to history. He is known in certain places in the South, and he’s certainly known in Mississippi, but he’s not as widely known as he probably should be, considering he led a rebellion against the Confederacy and in many ways was 100 years ahead of his time.”
Ross was immediately attracted to the character and set out to learn more about the man, convinced there must be more to the story than had been recorded. As Ross would come to discover, what was less known about him was even more remarkable.
“There’s a reason that more books have been written about the Civil War than any other period of American history,” Ross suggests. “And there’s a reason that more biographies have been written about Abraham Lincoln than anybody except for Christ. This is a gash in the American consciousness. This is a wound in our own history that’s almost inestimable. 600,000 people died. It’s something that’s taken generations if not a century to get over and make sense of. Newt Knight makes sense of the American Civil War at its essence, which is that it was fundamentally a moral struggle.”
Telling Knight’s story ignited a passion in Ross that would continue for a decade and spawn years of research.
Ross was intrigued with the larger than life character who had fought on behalf of his fellow poor white yeoman farmers and for African-Americans as well – a completely heretical endeavor in its day. “Newt was such a progressive forward-thinking individual and totally unique in his own era,” Ross says.
“Once Newt heard a truth, he couldn’t un-hear that truth. He saw the inequity in what he perceived to be a war over slavery, for the slave-owning classes. He fought a rebellion on behalf of the have-nots, of the poor and the dispossessed, and in doing so was driven out of his own culture and came to embrace another. He was a freedom fighter in many ways, and such a bad ass, that I was immediately attracted to the character.”
Ross wanted to tell Knight’s story, because, as he says, it illustrates that the South was not entirely unified in its support of the Confederacy or slavery, that indeed many southerners were morally opposed to slavery and willing to stand against it. Ross was also passionate to present life in the South after the war, and throughout Reconstruction. Very few of the plethora of films and television programming set during the Civil War have included this period –the most notable being the notorious silent epic “The Birth of a Nation,” and later “Gone with the Wind,” both decidedly of their time. As Ross learned, it was what Knight did after the war that made him more fascinating and cemented his enduring legacy. “Knight refused to stop fighting for civil rights, even after the war began to fade, and everybody assumed the slaves were free.”
“As a filmmaker, you dream about finding a character like this,” Ross muses. “I am fortunate that I was able to find him and I’m incredibly fortunate that I’m able to tell this story against this size of a canvas.”
During his research, Ross met with preeminent Civil War scholars, including historian Jim Kelly, a professor of American history at Jones County Junior College; Stephen Hahn, a professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania; and David Blight, a professor of American History at Yale University. While in Jones County, he also visited actual battle and campsites depicted in the film. During his visits, Ross also met with several of Knight’s descendants who shared archival material and their personal family stories. At the time, Kelly was writing his PhD dissertation about Newt Knight with leading Civil War scholar John Stauffer, a Professor of English and American Studies, and African-American Studies, at Harvard University serving as his advisor. Kelly had grown up in Jones County and had an interest in Knight; but most of what he had heard about the legendary man was biased against him: that he was a bushwhacker, an outlaw, a murderer, and for many in the region, worse, that he crossed over the racial divide.”
“Newt didn’t fit neatly into the “lost cause” mythology, the belief that there was a monolithic, white South unanimously pro-secession and anti-racial integration,” Kelly explains. “And that’s what makes him so unique.”
Ross remembers, “Jim combed the archives, reading every correspondence, news accounts, official records, etc., turning over nuggets that are not only groundbreaking regarding Newt but for students of the Civil War era.”
Kelly observes, “Newt’s story had been buried so deep and had been spun in so many different ways that generations knew very little about what really happened, and who Newt really was. Inspired by Ross’s own research and passion, once we started digging deeper, we started to see a man more complex and principled than previously believed. He took a moral stand, fought for the rights of all people, and came down on the right side of history, as we now see.”
In an interesting sidebar, Kelly uncovered the fact that his own great-great grandfather was Newt Knight’s cousin, making Kelly himself a descendant. “It’s been a personal journey as well. And once I find out who he is, I really come to admire him and respect him.”
Around the same time as his research visits to Jones County, Ross met and subsequently studied with, John Stauffer.
Ross’s unofficial status turned official when he became a Harvard fellow in American studies under Stauffer, with full access to Harvard’s encyclopedic libraries and resources. “He became a mentor and provided me with guidance and tutelage–-and a rather copious reading list,” Ross muses. “We dove into scholarship of the subject matter together.” Stauffer, who regularly writes about antislavery and abolitionism in the Civil War era recollects, “Gary and I came together based on our shared interest in the Civil War era, specifically about people like Newt Knight, and John Brown, and other so-called radicals who affected changes in perception and attitude.”
Ross and Stauffer’s pupil/mentor relationship continued, leading to their collaboration on several historical projects, such as a lecture at the annual Principals of Private Schools event about how the South ultimately won the Civil War, a theme reflected in “Free State of Jones.”
The reference to the war as “a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight,” reflects the contention by many that the poor were victims of the wealthy plantation owners’ economic interests, more than for any specific noble ideal. This belief fueled Knight’s commitment to take action, and Ross suggests, led to the popular view of Knight and his exploits as “almost a Robin Hood kind of story.”
Ross adds, “From the end of the war in 1865 until 1876 the South struggled to maintain a system of settled agriculture built on slavery. Many of the same issues that pushed the country into war continued to be controversial and divide the populace afterwards, specifically the divisive viewpoint that the South absolutely required a cheap labor force to preserve its agrarian economic society.
“As for Knight, as events after the war unfolded unfavorably for the freed slaves, he transitioned from the defender of yeoman farmers into the staunchest advocate of the newest American citizens, African Americans, fighting literally and figuratively on behalf of their rights; ultimately he even joined their community, marrying into and living among them; he supported intermarriage, and fathered mixed race children, of whom he was incredibly and publically proud.”
Ross says about Reconstruction, “What many don’t realize is that it was sort of a second Civil War, raging on after emancipation and after its conclusion in 1865.” Ross details that Reconstruction had three acts, which he depicts in the film. “The first act is the President gives the Confederates back their land. They get re-empowered and institute an alternate version of slavery in the form of sharecropping. Second, Congress sent military governors down to the South and tried to guarantee suffrage, or the right to vote for African American freed men. It took a lot of guts for blacks to vote during Reconstruction. A final act of Reconstruction was a resurgence of paramilitary organizations like the Ku Klux Klan or the Knights of the White Camilia, or the Red Shirts or the rifle clubs; local militias that worked to drive northern troops out of the South to reclaim political dominance.”
After completing his extensive research, Ross completed a first draft of the screenplay, much of it based on new facts uncovered during his initial research. Ross relates, “We knew that Newt lived in a mixed race community after the war and that he was very aggressive in fighting for the rights of freedmen, freed slaves, and African American citizens. But little was previously published or known about the racial makeup of his company during the war. Was it mixed race? Was he fighting for the rights of slaves? Or was he only fighting for the rights of poor white farmers? That’s been a fundamental question. Jim Kelly found the primary source documents that evidence Newt’s advocacy for the rights of freedmen extended to the principles of the Knight Company during the war.”
While Ross was still researching and writing his screenplay he introduced John Stauffer to noted Washington Post journalist Sally Jenkins. Inspired by Ross’ work, the two went on to collaborate on their 2009 book, The State of Jones, which would ultimately complete the historical record of Knight’s pro-Union views, his views about race, and how those views informed his actions after the war.
Ross took a hiatus from his research and studies in 2011 and 2012 when he adapted for the screen and directed the dystopian blockbuster The Hunger Games, another project with overt political overtones, setting the tone and template for what would become the first chapter in the series’ global success.
Following The Hunger Games, Ross met with newly formed motion picture and television studio STX Entertainment to bring Newt Knight’s story to the screen.