The historical movie Free State of Jones starring Matthew McConaughey is about citizens of Mississippi who disagreed with their state’s decision to secede from the Union at the beginning of the Civil War. The movie follows historical figure Newton Knight who deserted the Confederate army, led an uprising of guerilla warfare against the Confederacy and declared solidarity with the Union.
He also married a former slave leading to repercussions in race relations in Mississippi to this day. Here are some interesting research paper topics on Civil War history.
Historical beginnings of the Free State of Jones
A good research paper topic is to discuss the historical events that led up to the Free State of Jones. The characters in the movie deserted, not because of their opposition to slavery, but because of economic and social reasons, mainly due to the treatment of poor farmers and ranchers, conscription laws and confiscation of land, food and property by the Confederate army.
In the 2001 book, The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War, Victoria E. Bynum wrote: “No mere war among men, the bloody battles fought in Civil War Jones County merged from economic, religious, and social strife that had long simmered between rival families. Disparate, unorganized resistance to local authority exploded into full-scale rebellion by late 1863, when a number of Jones County deserters organized and armed themselves into a deadly fighting force.”
Racial repercussions from Newton Knight
Another term paper topic is to discuss the racial repercussions resulting from the controversial figure of Newton Knight. After the war, Knight entered a common law marriage with one of his family’s ex-slaves. Their light-skinned descendants were persecuted by both whites and blacks in the racially segregated South. History professor Wyatt Moulds, a direct descendant of Newton Knight’s grandfather, provided research on his family for the film. Race and hard feelings still permeate the county even after a century and a half.
In “The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones,’” by Richard Grant in Smithsonian Magazine March 2016, Moulds explained: “A lot of older people see Newt as a traitor and a reprobate, and they don’t understand why anyone would want to make a movie about him. If you point out that Newt distributed food to starving people, and was known as the Robin Hood of the Piney Woods, they’ll tell you he married a black, like that trumps everything. And they won’t use the word ‘black.’”
Does Hollywood have to be historically accurate?
In the movie, which is based on the books The Free State of Jones by Victoria E. Bynum and The State of Jones by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, the character of the boy Daniel is not based on a real person, but is likely a composite of various characters at the time. The very question of whether Hollywood movies should be factually accurate is a subject for debate among historians, and would make a good term paper topic. Media literacy and education consultant Frank W. Baker wrote in “History vs. Hollywood: Who Gets the Story Right?” posted on MiddleWeb March 19, 2014: “There’s no shortage of fact-checkers it seems: the internet is full of detectives eager to unearth and publicize distortions and other errors-of-fact.”
On the other hand, Baker quotes the Time magazine article “Books Vs. Movies” by Richard Corliss, Richard Schickel, Lev Grossman and Belinda Luscombe in which the authors say: “Almost any novel’s plot must be compressed into a black hole of incident and image. Then there’s the challenge any movie faces of putting thoughts into words, emotions into gestures, descriptions into actions. And always the adapters must worry not just about satisfying those persnickety readers but also about pleasing the audience ignorant of the book.”
How close to the book or source material should a Hollywood movie be? Do movie producers have an obligation to be accurate, or should they have some artistic license?