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Now that 12 Years A Slave has won Best Picture and Selma has given us a stirring portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr., Hollywood can finally get back to making historical dramas about the underrepresented white man. Director Gary Ross has been developing a period piece about American Civil War resister Newton Knight for years, and now Variety reports that, in addition to landing Matthew McConaughey as its lead, The Free State Of Jones has signed on Keri Russell and Mahershala Ali to play Knight’s wife and an escaped slave, respectively.

The film tells the story of Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who fled the Confederate army and attempted to create a free state in Jones County, Mississippi, during the Civil War. Knight eventually remarried to a former slave, essentially creating a mixed-race community in a state that considered such marriages illegal. An earlier film, 1948’s Tap Roots, also told a version of the story, although the racial politics of that era insured the film mostly focused on class politics instead of race issues.


Back in 2009, The New York Times ran a story about conflict regarding the books upon which The Free State Of Jones will be based. The film’s writer-director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) had optioned a book by Texas State University professor Victoria Bynum about Knight’s free state experiment. However, after doing research for the screenplay, Ross and the producers decided a new, “somewhat sexier” version of the history should be written and published. This led to a war of words between Bynum and the new authors, who Bynum accused of revising historical accounts to suit the needs of Ross’ screenplay. Needless to say, the final film version will hew to the “somewhat sexier” take on history. Curious history buffs can judge for themselves when the film, currently in production in Louisiana, is released.

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