Topics in History: History through Film

A Southport student review of the 2016 movie Free State of Jones

Topics is a course at Southport High School, taught by Kevin Sanders, which analyzes major events from United States and world history through Hollywood films that attempt to portray those events. Students investigate historical documents and other sources to determine if a film is historically accurate.

The goal is for students to develop deeper understandings of the historical discipline while generating questions about the way the world is around them, along with watching classical films that have graced American and international screens. This week, student Micah Smith reviews the film Free State of Jones.

By Micah Smith

Free State of Jones is about Newt Knight, a Mississippi farmer who joins the Confederate Army as a medic in 1863. Knight, who was anti-slavery, would rather heal the injured than fight the Union. Newt comes home to Jones County when his nephew is killed in combat to protect his family, but he is soon labeled an outlaw deserter. When he is forced to leave, he seeks sanctuary in the wetlands with a gang of runaway slaves. Knight launches a revolt that will change history forever, forming an alliance with slaves and other farmers.

I’m reviewing this movie about how historically accurate it is. The impact this movie has on Civil War history is huge. Following the war, during Radical Reconstruction (1867-1876), Knight worked for the government, assisting in the liberation of enslaved children who had not yet been released. Knight headed a unit in 1875 that attempted to safeguard African American people so that they may vote. However, the initiative failed, and decades of Black disenfranchisement followed. The movie also focuses on the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in 1868 in retaliation for the Emancipation Proclamation. Knight married a Black woman; the movie discusses how it affected his great-grandson. His great-grandson was Davis Knight, born in Jasper County, Miss. in 1925. Before the Civil Rights era, in the South if you had at least 1% of Black blood you were considered Black, so it caused Davis to be Black in court. That happened in 1948. The movie just shows the injustice of African Americans and people who supported equality for all people.

Free State of Jones is a very historically accurate film that used a research crew for their film and did heavy research about Newt and his legacy. They’ve even made a website about the movie. It has photos and letters about what happened. It just amazes me how much work the director put into this movie as accurately as possible. There are some parts of the film that did not happen, but that’s just to keep the movie more suspenseful. You can find more information about their website at