03 July 2016

'Free State of Jones' (Slavery in America)

In 1600, white Europeans started going to America. Almost immediately, they also started 'importing' Africans and using them as slaves. Northern America is cold and dry, with rocky soil. Southern America is warm and wet, with fertile soil. So the south is good for large-scale agriculture. There, whites started large-scale plantations (of tobacco and cotton) using large numbers of slaves. By 1850, America had about 50 lakh slaves and slaves made up one-third of the south's population.

In 1861, the anti-slavery Abraham Lincoln became America's President. Immediately, the 11 southern states left America and declared themselves a separate country: the Confederate States of America (CSA). The north declared war, and the American Civil War began.

The south's rich planters - who owned slaves - took their states out of America and started the Civil War. But none of them (or their sons) fought in the war. All the soldiers in the south's army were ordinary farmers - who did not own slaves. One of them was a man called Newton Knight from Mississippi state's Jones district. Disgusted with this situation, he left the war and went back to his district. There he hid in a swamp/marsh with some blacks.

More soldiers started leaving the south's army. They went and joined Newton Knight. This band went on increasing in size. They started protecting the district's farmers from the looting raids of the south's army. Next they started fighting the south's army directly. Eventually they defeated it - and overthrew the south's control over their district. They declared their district to be a free country: the Free State of Jones. They held the south's army at bay till 1865 - when the north defeated the south and the Civil War ended.

In 2001, historian Victoria Bynum wrote a book about this episode. And now, director David Ross (Seabiscuit, Hunger Games) has made it into a movie - starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight.

David Ross has made Free State of Jones with a slow and precise style. This makes FSJ an excellent history movie, but not necessarily a mass entertainer. This is a pity. Because FSJ is an exciting and inspiring story - about slavery in America, about an amazing episode in America's history and the life of a true American hero. A movie like this should be seen by everybody. If only David Ross had spiced up FSJ with more drama and action (like Steven Spielberg), it would have achieved this objective. This was especially important this year - when the Donald Trump campaign has shown how strong racism is in America. So Free State of Jones is - unfortunately - a golden opportunity missed.

When will Hollywood make a movie on the anti-slavery crusader John Brown - one of America's greatest heroes?

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