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Newton Knight; The Other Tarzan

 

by Charles M. Blow

The movie “Free State of Jones” certainly doesn’t lack in ambition — it sprawls so that it feels like several films stitched together — but I still found it woefully lacking.

The story itself is quite interesting. It’s about Newton Knight, a white man in Mississippi during and after the Civil War, who organizes and mounts a somewhat successful rebellion against the Confederacy. He falls in love with a mixed-race slave named Rachel, and they establish a small community of racially ambiguous relatives that a book of the same title calls “white Negroes.”

It is easy to see why this story would appeal to Hollywood executives. It has a bit of everything, with eerie echoes of modern issues.

It comes in the wake of “12 Years a Slave,” at a time when slave narratives are en vogue, only this story emphasizes white heroism and centers on the ally instead of the enslaved.

It tries desperately to cast the Civil War, and specifically dissent within the Confederacy, as more a populism-versus-elitism class struggle in which poor white men were forced to fight a rich white man’s war and protect the cotton trade, rather than equally a conflict about the moral abhorrence of black slavery.

Throughout, there is the white liberal insistence that race is merely a subordinate construction of class, with Newt himself saying at the burial of poor white characters, “somehow, some way, sometime, everybody is just somebody else’s nigger.”

And, by extension, there is the lingering suggestion of post-racialism because, as the author Victoria E. Bynum writes in the book’s preface, the relationship between Newt and Rachel “added the specter of interracial intimacy to the story.”

But, protruding from each of the film’s virtues are the jagged edges of its flaws.

First, there is the obvious “white savior” motif, which others have already noted.

In the book Bynum remarks, “At best, Newton Knight became a primeval Robin Hood, a kind of Anglo-Saxon Noble Savage.” But in the film there are also tired flashes of the Tarzan narrative: a white man who, dropped into a jungle, masters it better than the natives.

For instance when Newt is delivered to a swamp encampment of runaway slaves, the runaways are eating whatever they can, making fires in the hollows of trees and sleeping on the ground and in the open. By the time Newt leaves the swamp, he has grown and armed the encampment, built shelters, ambushed soldiers, organized feasts of roasted pig and corn and, as Rachel put it, he even “grew crops in a swamp.”

Newt conquered the swamp in a way the runaway slaves never had.

Second, there is little space in the film for righteous black rage and vengeance, but plenty for black humor and conciliation. After Moses, one of the runaways from the swamp, is lynched after registering blacks to vote, Newt gives his eulogy, remarking: “The man had so many reasons to be full of hate, and yet he never was. That, Lord, is one of your greatest miracles.” This is too often the way people want to think of black folks in the wake of trauma: as magically, transcendently merciful and spiritually restrained.

But perhaps the most disturbing feature of the film is the near erasure of slavery altogether and the downplaying of slave rape in particular to further a Shakespearean love story.

First, there are only two slaves of note in the film who are shown still in servitude, and both apparently house slaves: Rachel and a man named George.

Although Bynum points out that Newt’s part of Mississippi “was not a major slaveholding region,” the movie reduced slavery to an ancillary ephemerality and purges it of too much of its barbarism.

One of the only hints at the savagery of the institution is the rape of Rachel by her enslaver, but even that is treated so delicately as to offend — he approaches as her eyes dart. This is particularly perplexing in a film that relishes its gore. Later, when Newton notices a plate-sized stain of blood seeping through the back of her dress, she says tearfully:

“I wouldn’t let him. All the other times I just let him. What could I do?”

This genteel treatment, along with grossly inappropriate descriptors, appears in the book as well, when the author writes:

“Through encounters with women such as Rachel, Newt knew that white men regularly crossed the color line despite laws and social taboos that forbade interracial liaisons and marriages. Rachel, light-skinned and physically attractive, was the sort of slave after whom many white men lusted. The fact that she had a white-skinned child announced to interested men that she had already been ‘initiated’ into the world of interracial sexual relations.”

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Encounters? Liaisons? Initiated? Sexual relations?

As long as she was a slave this was rape! Always. Period.

Also, according to the book, Newt’s grandfather bought Rachel when she was 16 and she already had “a small daughter” — which means that her rape likely started at an odiously young age.

This fascinating story was full of cinematic and educational potential, but there are so many moments in the film that strike a sour chord — particularly coming from a Hollywood that delivers a dearth of black-focused stories — that rather than contextualizing and clarifying, it performs the passive violence of distortion.

(This column originally appeared in the New York Times JUNE 27, 2016 under the title “White Savior, Rape and Romance?”)

Charles M. Blow is a New York Times Columnist and nationally-known commentator: “I invite you to visit my blog By The Numbers, join me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter, or e-mail me at chblow@nytimes.com.”

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