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The Movie About Reconstruction that You Forgot, or Won’t Take Seriously

Scholars have hailed The Free State of Jones as the first film to offer a realistic portrayal of Reconstruction, depicting scenes of white supremacy terrorism and efforts to thwart the 14th and 15th Amendments. “The first [film] to properly and historically situate Reconstruction in full relation to the war itself,” asserts Matthew Stanley of Albany State University. But critics have been quick to counter that its protagonist is a white former Confederate, not exactly the “hero” that Reconstruction deserves. Such a nuanced approach can mislead audiences about the complex realities of the era: it was black Americans who were at the center of post-war reform, not the few “scalawags” like Newt Knight. “This story emphasizes white heroism and centers on the ally instead of the enslaved . . . There is the obvious ‘white savior’ motif,” observes Charles Blow of the New York Times. When we “root” for Knight, we are rooting for a white Southerner.

Free State is the Schindler’s List of Civil War movies: the focus is the one Nazi / Confederate who grew a conscience and helped some people. Making Knight the focus of Reconstruction is like making Schindler the focus of the Holocaust – yes, they were both real men and their actions shed light on complex historical events, but they were clearly not what those events were about. Is there no film that offers a black hero in Reconstruction? Is there no movie where white Southerners are the unrepentant villains? Is there no instance in cinema where the federal government is portrayed as an active and positive agent?

The answer is yes, but you won’t like it: the 1999 blockbuster flop Wild Wild West. The film did not do well in theaters, largely because it’s over-the-top special effects and historical context did not attract audiences. However, it should be taken seriously by historians interested in cinema. WWW offers a black hero partnered with a US Marshal under orders from a resolute Republican president. Arguably, WWW is the antidote to the white Southern hero Hollywood keeps giving us.

Set aside your disgust at the bad acting and heavy-handed script for a moment, and you will see that WWW gives audiences a positive view of Reconstruction in line with most scholarship. The villains are two nasty, un-reconstructed Confederates bent on destroying the United States – in some ways, a far more accurate portrayal of post-war white Southerners than the unique Newt Knight (many outstanding historians have catalogued in detail the intensity and extent of post-war white supremacy violence). Dr. Arliss Loveliss (played with surprising wit and charm by Kenneth Branagh) is a ruined planter/enslaver who lost both legs in the war and is so filled with rage and hate that he concocts a plan to kidnap President Grant and ultimately break the United States up into large regional states to be sold back to Mexico, France, and England. Given that Confederates fought for four years to break up the United States (a nation built upon “a sandy foundation” of “fundamentally wrong” principles, according to the Confederate Vice President), and that rebels led by John Wilkes Booth aimed to kidnap President Lincoln and his vice president and secretary of state, Loveliss’s plan is not so far-fetched. To assist him, Loveliss employs another ex-Confederate, General “Bloodbath” McGrath (Ted Levine), notorious for his massacre of black troops and free blacks during the war. Such butchery, sadly, was all too real.

Loveliss’s plan is nearly a success, but President Ulysses Grant (Kevin Kline) refuses to negotiate, and instead sends his best US Marshal, Artemus Gordon (also Kevin Kline), to team up with Captain James West of the US Army (Will Smith) to arrest and detain Loveliss. Again, such actions accurately represent history, if not in fact at least in spirit – President Grant was determined to pursue Reconstruction, and he cooperated with Congress to punish neo-Confederate activities. The Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871 empowered the executive to send federal agents, including US Marshals, into the former Confederate states to fight terrorism and prevent voter fraud.

Allow me to reiterate how cinematically revolutionary it is to have a black US officer pursue white ex-Confederates after the war. Quentin Tarantino received much praise for his Hateful Eight character Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), who verbally assaults and ultimately kills an unreconstructed rebel. But Major Warren is technically retired when the film occurs, and had no intention whatsoever of confronting Confederate veterans. In fact, audiences do not learn of Warren’s past until later in the film, and Warren ends up teaming-up with a different Confederate veteran, further obfuscating Reconstruction race relations. In WWW, on the other hand, there is no doubt about Captain West’s identity, mission, and values. His pursuit of “Bloodbath” McGrath is made all the more poignant since West’s own parents were murdered by McGrath.

If you’re thinking that you can’t possibly take a shoot-em-up, ka-boom-filled Will Smith summer blockbuster seriously, consider that The Free State of Jones has been panned as mediocre film-making at best. Cinema critic David Ehrlich, for instance, gives the film a “C-” grade and explains that it “is structured with the haphazard flow of a miniseries that’s been cleaved down to feature length, and shot with the boxed-in functionality of basic cable television.” Or that it “shambles through a few dark chapters of American history with all the zeal of a kid doing his homework.” The quality of filmmaking should not be the determining factor in judging a movie’s treatment of history, nor should casting. Is Matthew McConaughey (Newt Knight) significantly different than Will Smith (Captain James West)? Both began as “B” actors who have since entered the drama genre. The only difference between WWW and other Civil War / Reconstruction films is that it was never billed as a “history movie,” and its over-the-top special effects and ridiculous action sequences mark it as mindless summer fare. Those objections aside, this reviewer is still happy to root for the black officer who bags the Confederate baddies.