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The third act of the film takes place in Mississippi after the Civil War. There was a phase during early Reconstruction when blacks could vote, and black officials were elected for the first time. Then former Confederates violently took back control of the state and implemented a kind of second slavery for African-Americans.
Once again disenfranchised, and terrorized by the Klan, they were exploited through sharecropping and legally segregated. He was hired by the Reconstruction government to free black children from white masters who were refusing to emancipate them. His commitment to these issues never waned. Much as Ross wanted to shoot the movie in Jones County, there were irresistible tax incentives to film across the border in Louisiana, and some breathtaking cypress swamps where various cast members were infested with the tiny mites known as chiggers.
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Nevertheless, Ross and McConaughey spent a lot of time in Jones County, persuading many county residents to appear in the film. On the website of Jones County Rosin Heels, the local chapter of the Sons of the Confederate Veterans, an announcement warned that the film will portray Newt Knight as a civil rights activist and a hero. Doug Jefcoate was listed as camp commander. I found him listed as a veterinarian in Laurel, and called up, saying I was interested in his opinions on Newt Knight. Come to the animal hospital tomorrow.
The receptionist led me into a small examining room and closed both its doors. I stood there for a few long minutes, with a shiny steel table and, on the wall, a Bible quotation. Then Jefcoate walked in, a middle-aged man with sandy hair, glasses and a faraway smile.
He was carrying two huge, leather-bound volumes of his family genealogy. He gave me ten minutes on his family tree, and when I interrupted to ask about the Rosin Heels and Newt Knight, he stopped, looked puzzled, and began to chuckle. He laughed uproariously, then settled down and gave me his thoughts. Cox, an animated year-old radio and television announcer with a long white beard, welcomed me into a small office crammed with video equipment and Confederate memorabilia.
All he had so far was the credits Executive Producer Carl Ford and the introductory banjo music. And like all poor, white, ignorant trash, he was in it for himself. Some people are far too enamored of the idea that he was Martin Luther King, and these are the same people who believe the War Between the States was about slavery, when nothing could be further from the truth. There seemed no point in arguing with him, and it was almost impossible to get a word in, so I sat there scribbling as he launched into a long monologue that defended slavery and the first incarnation of the Klan, burrowed deep into obscure Civil War battle minutiae, denied all charges of racism, and kept circling back to denounce Newt Knight and the simpering fools who tried to project their liberal agendas on him.
Joseph Hosey is a Jones County forester and wild mushroom harvester who was hired as an extra for the movie and ended up playing a core member of the Knight Company. Scruffy and rail-thin with piercing blue eyes and a full beard, he looks like he subsists on Confederate Army rations and the occasional squirrel. A few years later, there was a vote on it, and the names were changed back.
Thank God, because that would have sucked. Like his grandfather before him, Hosey is a great admirer of Newt Knight. It made me really wish my grandfather was still alive, because we were always saying someone should make a movie about Newt. I ask him what he admires most about Knight. Newt Knight gives me something in my heritage, as a white Southerner, that I can feel proud about. After Reconstruction, with the former Confederates back in charge, the Klan after him, and Jim Crow segregation laws being passed, Knight retreated from public life to his homestead on the Jasper County border, which he shared with Rachel until her death in , and continued to share with her children and grandchildren.
He lived the self-sufficient life of a yeoman Piney Woods farmer, doted on his swelling ranks of children and grandchildren, and withdrew completely from white society. He gave that single long interview in , revealing a laconic sense of humor and a strong sense of right and wrong, and he died the following year, in February He was 84 years old. So Hosey drove up to the locked gate, and then swiped up the relevant photographs on his phone.
Even in death, he defied them. The two sisters sitting across the table were gently amused. They had seen this many times before. It was, in fact, the normal reaction when they tried to explain their family tree to outsiders.
After many decades of living in the outside world, they are back in Soso, Mississippi, dealing with prejudice from all directions. The worst of it comes from within their extended family.
For simplification, she said that there were three basic groups. The White Knights are descended from Newt and Serena, are often pro-Confederate, and proud of their pure white bloodlines. In , one of them, Ethel Knight, published a vitriolic indictment of Newt as a traitor to the Confederacy. The White Negroes a.
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After Rachel died, Newt and Georgeanne had children. And he kept trying to marry out the color, so we would all keep getting lighter-skinned. We have to tell our young people, do not date in the Soso area. All Knights are hardworking and very capable. In the film, Marsh and Blaylock appear briefly in a courthouse scene.
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For the two of them, the Knight family saga has continued into the 20th century and beyond. Their cousin Davis Knight, who looked white and claimed to be white, was tried for the crime of miscegenation in , after marrying a white woman. The trial was a study in Mississippian absurdity, paradox, contradiction and racial obsessiveness. A white man was convicted of being black; the conviction was overturned; he became legally white again.
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