In many ways, the American Civil War was a religious war, with people on both sides making religious arguments for and against slavery — and that aspect of the war continues to surface in movies about the conflict and the history that preceded it.
For example, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation (which premiered at the Sundance festival five months ago and comes to theatres nationwide in October) reportedly focuses on the religious visions that motivated Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831.
And now, in a clip from Free State of Jones (which opens this Friday), the leaders of a rebellion against the Confederacy declare that you cannot own “a child of God”.
Here is the clip, which features Matthew McConaughey and Mahershala Ali as Jones County rebels Newton Knight and Moses Washington, respectively:
I haven’t seen the film yet, so I don’t know how specifically religious it gets (“child of God” is a fairly general expression), but note how the other rebels remove their hats at the end of the clip, as though they were taking part in a religious ceremony.
The filmmakers have created a website that allows you to go through the film scene by scene and see what its historical sources are. In the section on this scene, it says:
Those in the Knight Company who fought only for class-based reasons were more likely to shy away from the racial issues inherent in Reconstruction. Newt, by contrast, engaged with those issues, and this speaks to his evolving and committed attitudes on race. When Newt eulogizes the hanged boys (section 22) and even suggests that the Confederacy viewed them as “niggers”, he is not equating the experience of white members of his company with the oppression endured by slaves. He is making a point to the white members of his community, who may still see themselves as separate from or superior to African Americans, that everyone can be under the heel of someone else’s boot, and that rather than indulge a feeling of white superiority, they should engage the struggle at hand—a struggle based on equality. “You can own a horse or a mule or a hog or an ox, but you cannot own a child of God”: in this phrase Newt is invoking a Christian tenet that everyone is equal in the eyes of the Lord.
As noted above, the film opens this coming Friday. Here is the official trailer:
June 21 update: Well, what do you know. Just one day later, we now have a trailer for Birth of a Nation — and it, too, begins with the phrase “a child of God”:
June 22 update: Here’s a five-minute clip from Free State of Jones, showing part of a battle scene. Note the dialogue spoken by Newton Knight near the end (“You love God, don’t you? … You love God, and God loves you. … Jesus loves you”):