The story behind "Free State of Jones"

Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight in "Free State of Jones."

Murray Close/STX Entertainment

Actor Matthew McConaughey won an Oscar for his performance in the 2013 movie "Dallas Buyers Club." An upcoming feature on the summer screen stars McConaughey in another role based on a real-life historical figure ... one, Michelle Miller tells us, who is still controversial a century-and-a-half later:

Mississippi writer William Faulkner once wrote, "The past is never dead, it isn't even the past." And when it comes to the American Civil War -- 151 years after the South's defeat -- the past remains both a painful memory, and an ongoing cause for debate.

In the new film "Free State of Jones," Matthew McConaughey plays Confederate soldier Newton Knight, and depending on whom you ask, Knight was either a hero or a traitor.

"The deeds of the story, the context of that time, will be very relevant to today," he said.

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Newton Knight (1837-1922).

CBS News

Knight was a poor white farmer from Mississippi who in 1863 abandoned the Southern cause, and spent the rest of his life fighting against oppression.

"I think his DNA was sort of written in the Bible and the Declaration of Independence," McConaughey said. "I mean, here's a guy who believed there were no kings on Earth above him. There is one king, and that's God. And so his faith trumped the dominant values of society at that time."

The film has been a near-decade-long passion project for director Gary Ross, who has made such blockbusters as "Big," "Seabiscuit," and "The Hunger Games."

"I didn't know anything about his story, and I didn't know much about the Civil War, especially Reconstruction," Ross said.

"When you get disconnected from your history, you don't know where you come from. You don't understand that the struggle for freedom is an ongoing one."

Knight risked his life, deserting the Confederacy when he realized the fight wasn't his.

"If you owned 20 slaves, you were exempted from the draft," Ross said. "But poor folks who owned no slaves had to go and fight and die, so [they] could keep owning slaves and get richer."

As McConaughey pointed out, "This was people that were divided by race instead of united by class. The yeoman farmer that Newt and his friends were had much more in common with the African-American at that time than they did with the plantation owner."

His army of deserters and slaves took control of Jones County, Mississippi, declaring it a free state ... aligned with neither the South nor the North.

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Matthew McConaughey and director Gary Ross during shooting of "Free State of Jones."

Murray Close/STX Entertainment

When asked what Newt's story does to the white male Southerner stereotype, Wyatt Moulds, who teaches history at Jones County Junior College, replied, "It does a lot to discredit the myth of the lost cause. Some people would try to convey this notion that the South was monolithic. In other words, all the white people, you know, rallied around to defend the cause of the Confederacy."

For Moulds (who is also Newton Knight's distant cousin), Knight was a man ahead of his time.

"He provided food to destitute people. He rescued children who were in slavery. You know, he was known as the Robin Hood of the Piney Woods."

Even after the war, in the period known as Reconstruction, Knight is said to have helped free blacks vote for the first time, and help them survive a reign of terror under the Ku Klux Klan.

"It would've been so easy for Newt Knight, when the war was over, to do what a lot of other white people did and say, 'Okay, that's resolved. War's over. I'm not gonna continue to fight the injustices that I see around me.' But he didn't do that."

But not everyone sees Knight as the hero ... instead they see Hollywood meddling with history.

Carl Ford is a Jones County bankruptcy lawyer; John Cox is a self-described amateur historian. They are both members of the Rosin Heels, a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans. Cox describes Knight as "trailer trash."

When asked their chief complaint about the movie, Ford said, "Well, I hadn't seen it, don't know anything about it. But anything that comes out of Hollywood can't be good."

"So you take issue with this whole Robin Hood to help African-Americans, to help the poor farmer?" asked Miller. "Oh, yes. Exactly," said Cox, who said there is no proof to the story. "Cut from whole cloth. It just doesn't exist. It's a wonderful story, and it's a story that myths are made of."

To be certain, the film takes several historic liberties. But director Gary Ross says Knight's story helps dispel a lingering myth about the war. "People can confuse the Civil War for themselves," he said. "It was pretty simple. I'll say it: The Civil War was about slavery, okay? A lot of people want to pretend it was about other stuff -- it was about states' rights, it was about free soil. It was about -- no. The Civil War was fought over whether or not human beings should or could be owned."

If history in Jones County is confusing, family is even more so. Newt Knight had several families -- his first with a white wife, his second with a former slave named Rachel. Dorothy Knight Marsh and Florence Knight Blaylock are Newt and Rachel's great-granddaughters. They say people tried to outright deny their family history. "Hell, yeah," said Dorothy. "Oh, yes. Some still do here," added Florence.

And according to Dorothy, under the "one drop" rule in Mississippi, "Don't no matter how white you are, how straight your hair is, if you got one drop of black blood, then you're considered black in the state of Mississippi." That "one drop" meant some members of the Knight family were persecuted under Jim Crow ... legal segregation.

Miller asked, "Is this legacy ever a burden?"

"No," they both replied.

"We're proud of our legacy. We really are," said Dorothy. "We're proud of this coming out."

In Newt's final acts of defiance, he chose to be buried next to Rachel -- black and white together in the graveyard -- against Mississippi law.

"There's great power, as an actor, in understanding who you are, and who you are portraying, and there's a clarity to that," said McConaughey.

On Knight's headstone is engraved "He lived for others."

"Everyone down here is talking about heritage around here," said Ross. "There's a wonderful piece of heritage that they can cling to, that there was a man who had the guts to stand up to the Confederacy and fight against it. And that's a beautiful piece of Southern heritage I think they can turn to."

To watch a trailer for "Free State of Jones," click on the video player below.


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