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June 24, 2016 05:50 PM

Free State of Jones brings to life one of the Civil War’s most extraordinary and counterintuitive episodes, in which a Confederate deserter overthrew his former commanders and established a free “state” in his native corner of southeast Mississippi.

Newton Knight, played by a ragged, yellow-toothed Matthew McConaughey, was a poor farmer who, incensed by a new law that allowed landowners to swap 20 slaves for their military service, abandoned his company to lead his own rebellion.

“He looked around at all of his yeoman farmer buddies and said, ‘Do you own any slaves?’ They were like, ‘No.’ He goes, ‘Me neither. I’m not fighting this war. It’s a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. I’m out of here,’ ” McConaughey tells PEOPLE of his character.

Runaways and former slaves hiding out in the swamps in Free State of Jones
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Once Knight and his likeminded friends left the army, they returned home to find their wives struggling to make ends meet under the impossible tax demands of the Confederates. Soldiers frequently raided farms for livestock and supplies, often taking more than the farmers could afford to give, and making enemies of the locals in the process.

The fall of Vicksburg in 1863 triggered a deluge of Confederate deserters to scatter throughout Mississippi. In response, the army sent Maj. Amos McLemore to hunt them down with search parties and hound dogs. On Oct. 5, 1863, a man believed to have been Knight broke into the mansion where McLemore was staying and shot him to death. Soon after, a large group of deserters organized themselves into the Jones County Scouts, elected Knight as their leader and vowed to protect each other’s farms against the Confederates.

After Knight and his company had driven the Confederates out of Jones County, he raised the United States flag over the courthouse in Ellisville. The town became known as the Free State of Jones, and some believe that Knight wrote his own constitution, proclaiming that all men are created equal regardless of race. “He wrote his own constitution, starting with, ‘If you can stand on two legs, you re a man,’ ” McConaughey explains.

Confederate soldiers fighting in the trenches in Free State of Jones
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By March 1864, Confederate president Jefferson Davis was informed by one of his lieutenants that Jones County was in “open rebellion” and that guerilla fighters were “proclaiming themselves ‘Southern Yankees,’ ” according to the Smithsonian’s Richard Grant. By that point Knight and his men had effectively driven the Southern army out of southeast Mississippi.

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The rebellion was eventually quashed later that summer, when Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk sent two experienced regiments to retake the so-called Free State of Jones. Using packs of hounds – the same dogs used to run down runaway slaves – the Confederates retook the area, hanging rebels along their way. But they couldn’t catch Knight or his core supporters, who had fled to the swamps where they survived with the support of local sympathizers.

Free State of Jones director and writer Gary Ross on set
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When the Confederates finally pulled out of Jones County proclaiming victory, Knight and his men rose from the swamps and got back to work raising hell against the army. Knight survived what would be their final battle on Jan. 10, 1865 – and three months later the war was over.

“For 40 years after the war he lived in an interracial community,” McConaughey explains. “He fought for the rights of African-Americans until the day he died, and he still went down in defiance by being buried next to his black wife, Rachel Knight.”

Rachel (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) was Knight’s grandfather’s former slave, and the two fell in love after Knight and his wife Serena (played by Keri Russell) became separated. He and Rachel had five children together. Knight also fathered nine children with Serena, who eventually returned to Jones County and lived in a separate house on Knight’s farm. Both families’ descendants continue to live in Jones to this day.

Over the course of his exhaustive three-year research, Free State of Jones director and screenwriter Gary Ross spent time in modern-day Jones County, where Knight remains a divisive character nearly 150 years later.

The movie was filmed about 100 miles outside Jones County in the more tax-friendly state of Louisiana, but Ross says, “We actually had a lot of extras come down from Jones because they wanted to be in Newton Knight’s story.”

Until recently, however, many Southerners viewed Knight as a traitor and villain. In fact, some scholars have accused Confederate apologists of unfairly demonizing Knight in an attempt to erase his story from history. But perhaps his worst crime, in the eyes of some Southerners, was his interracial marriage to a former slave. As one man told the Smithsonian, “A lot of people find it easier to forgive Newt for fighting Confederates than mixing blood.”

Fortunately, Ross says he noticed a change in perception over Knight during his time in Mississippi. “In their parents’ generation he was seen as a traitor to the Confederacy and kind of excoriated, and over time I think the next generation has come to embrace him much more,” he explains. “So there’s a new generation that is actually proud of the fact that their ancestors were opposed to slavery and were opposed to the plantation system.”

Confederate officers posing in the medical tent in Free State of Jones
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The change in attitude toward Knight is encouraging, but sadly Ross feels this tale of racial injustice is still relevant today. “I started this project 10 years ago and it was relevant to me then,” he says. “Race is sadly an ongoing issue that we’re compelled to deal with in America. We should be past it and we’re not.”

He hopes that by shedding some light on the oft-forgotten post-war Reconstruction era, in which the supposedly emancipated slaves were forced back into servitude, the film can help educate Americans on their complicated past.

“All you can do is try to do is fill in the history and tell the truth the best you can,” he says. “I think we’re capturing a bit of lost history in telling the story of Reconstruction and filling in that era. It’s a place to begin, it’s a contribution.”

Free State of Jones hits theaters Friday.

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