In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that studying the history of great men is useful in that it inspires others to do great things like their heroes. In essence, good histories model noble behavior for later generations to emulate. Today, we like to think of history as more instructive than inspirational — at least our academic histories aim to be educational. The histories we see in movies and on TV, though, is more of the stirring sort. The new release Free State of Jones is a case in point.
The movie tells the story of Newt Knight, a farmer from Mississippi who lead a spontaneous revolt against the larger Confederate rebellion in 1864. Far from a pragmatic Unionist driven by a sense of nationalism, Knight’s a character who transcends the racism of his time and embraces equality between whites and former slaves — he’s a 21st century hero from the 19th century. He fights for a cause and not a political convenience. Knight is the Nietzschean ideal, inspiring and (unpretentiously) noble, and the film is suited to inspirational aims.
Many critics have faulted the film and its depiction of Knight for promoting the “white savior” trope. Here, the protagonist is the prototypical hero so often celebrated in our fictions and non-fictions. He’s the good white man who saves the day — and the former slaves who join him along the way. Vann R. Newkirk II called the picture’s portrayals “textbook examples of how not to have conversations about white privilege, ‘allyship,’ and black struggle.” It is surely that, but the movie seems to have less humbling and enlightening aims anyway. It’s an inspirational story intended for white audiences about liberality and leadership, and it tells us quite a lot about our time.
That a film starring a southern movie star repudiating the Confederacy on the merits of slavery is a mainstream offering is startling in itself. Ten or twenty years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been made. Indeed, it’s obvious predecessor, Glory, a notable film in the white savior genre, demonstrates the traditional good-Northern-hero version, which is more consistent within the trope. Nearly 30 years later, the Free State of Jones is reconstructing southern heroes in the same vein — even better, the hero here discovers his righteousness rather than his biases. Times have changed.
That it’s a true story offers something of theoretical value to white viewers — particularly southerners. Knight is someone they can aspire to emulate. They need not remain bound by the racist bigotry to which so many southerners cling. Instead, they can see themselves in the everyman hero of the movie (pure and successful, instead of conflicted or intolerant) and choose to do better than those around them. Indeed, they might be inspired to actively fight against racism in their society like Knight.
Of course, in embracing that mantle, there’s a danger that southerners can also conveniently excuse themselves from guilt or responsibility for generations of wrongdoing. Knight’s character is sure to stoke the “not-all-white-people” crowd and provide cover from acknowledging participation in the fruits of privilege. Again, though, that white southerners might want an anti-Confederate hero at all says something about today. We will have to see how the movie fares in the southern states to get any kind of handle on that. It would be quite something for them to even want to trade Robert E. Lee for Newt Knight though.
If this sounds like a new spin on the Civil War, it’s important to note in what ways it is not. Firstly, even our scholarly treatments of the Civil War do tend toward the white savior story. In most college US history classes, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe feature far more prominently than Robert Morris or Solomon Northup (and probably even Frederick Douglass) in lectures on abolitionism. Racism still pervades the stories we tell about that, and in that sense Free State of Jones fits with the usual narrative. Freedom from slavery is still presented as something granted to black Americans, rather than earned or taken by them (even in partnership). That’s part of the appeal for white audiences, consciously or not: these stories are ones of white people being noble and righteous. It offers something great with which to identify.
If abolitionism is often the testament of the magnanimity and nobility of whites in our histories, the civil rights movement of the 20th century belongs to America’s black citizens, who were the agents standing in righteousness there. You’re likely to find Martin Luther King, John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer in US history textbooks covering the freedom movement, but a typical US history course wouldn’t mention white allies much, if at all — except John and Robert Kennedy in all their complicated squeamishness (and Lyndon Johnson and his unheroic pragmatism).
Therein lies a lot of the great divide in the US. For many Staters, the civil rights movement — and the Black Lives Movement — pits “us” against “them.” The heroes are black and the villains are white — or the heroes are white and the troublemakers are black (or other minorities). Either way, it’s a conflict between racial communities that our histories seem to encourage that segregates us.
The question the allure of Free State of Jones and its ilk suggests is: could relations be less antagonistic if white Americans had a savior to admire from the civil rights movement too? Do white people just need a white hero? Would that allow them to buy in more emphatically on civil rights the way they do on abolitionism?
It’s possible — but, more importantly, is it good? White savior stories only perpetuate white supremacy, portraying whites as benevolent change-makers and minimizing the agency of black actors. So, even if successful, those narratives get us no closer to being allies or working together in true equality. Sadly, the buddy-cop film fits that ideal better than the usual historical narrative. It’s possible our society benefits more from 48 Hours et al than noble histories then. If so, our historiography fails us, doesn’t it?
Change will not come to our society without conscious effort; racism and discrimination will not be gently let go — and certainly not by white citizens who are blind to their privilege. That kind of advance requires a cultural shift, to which movies as well as scholarly works need to contribute. In the meantime, you can get the star power to open a film (again) depicting a white savior, but America seems very far from any inspirational ally trope. That historical blockbuster still eludes us.