With the impression that the recent movie Free State of Jones did not receive sufficient attention, I decided to write a few words about a film that merits more discussion—particularly from historians. I saw the movie about a month ago without reading or hearing much about it. Perhaps one reason the movie impressed me was that I half expected it to mindlessly repeat the tedious and insidious cliché of the white male savior, whose ultimate function is to regenerate white audiences. Pioneered so deftly by James Fenimore Cooper almost two centuries ago, such narratives have served time and again to deliver white audiences a cathartic experience of sublime sorrow coupled with a sense of closure of things past. Time and again such savior tales helped transform tragedy and guilt into a sense of comfort and regeneration. In so doing these carefully plotted narratives wiped the slate clean by suggesting that we have now acknowledged our past communal tragedies and can look forward to a bright future nourished by an enduring catharsis. Indeed, even movies that did not follow The Last of the Mohicans formula to the fullest, such as The Revenant, still insisted on focusing on the white male protagonist as the focal point of a tale about the American west and the tragedy of Native American peoples.
So, while the movie did boast a white charismatic hero at its very center and although said white protagonist to a significant extent did serve the function of the white savior, the movie offered something else that I never encountered before on a screen—an account of the Civil War that portrays the freed slaves as the losers. There was no cathartic ending, no sense of infinite possibilities awaiting the United States as a more complete nation, but an acute sense of the failure of the white majority in the United States—yet again—to act with basic decency towards the freed slaves. In this context the white protagonist transformed from a cathartic agent into an ‘exception that proves the rule’. Furthermore, the hero failed to achieve a legacy of lasting significance. Yes, he provided a blueprint for a multi racial family, but even almost a century later, as the movie illustrates through its use of forward flashes, the wider white community refused to recognize that racial legacy.
Ultimately then, despite taking many of its cues from the formula of white savior narratives, Free State of Jones does not function quite that way and even in some regards seems to undermine its own structure. To be sure, yet again we might have to endure Matthew McConaughey’s delirious chatter on Oscar night, though I doubt the movie received sufficient good reviews for that. I also suspect that the new Birth of a Nation coming out this fall will provide a more powerful alternative to white savior narratives. But I’d like to stress the significance of the movie’s structural breach by a comparison to another savior movie, Spielberg’s Schindler’s List–perhaps the most famous ‘exception to the rule’ savior film. Free State of Jones could not have been directed by Spielberg, for it did not end with a tearful rejoinder that impressed us with the lasting significance of the protagonist’s heroism. We did not experience a sense of emotional elation by witnessing how so many reaped the fruits that the white savior sowed. Instead we learned a crushing lesson about American history as devoid of any easy feel-good moments despite the efforts of some to provide us with such material. How very unAmerican!