Right and Wrong in “The Free State of Jones”: Making Sense of the Civil War Film Tradition

Right and Wrong in “The Free State of Jones”: Making Sense of the Civil War Film Tradition

No one quite knows what to make of “The Free State of Jones,” the latest big-budget feature film about the history of the Civil War. Some have praised it as the “final word on racism’s vicious legacy” while others have lambasted it for engaging in “the passive violence of distortion.” All this has left the future of the genre in doubt. In the wake of the film’s disappointing opening weekend, Variety wonders whether there is money to be made in “quality movies for adults with top talent” like this, which hope to contend with the successful formulas superhero and fantasy franchises. “The Free States of Jones” winds up accomplishing considerably more than its critics assert, and yet still much less than the genre of Civil War films needs it to.

Matthew McConaughey stars in The Free State of Jones
Matthew McConaughey stars in The Free State of Jones.

More than other recent films on the Civil War era, “The Free States of Jones” melds the racial politics of slavery with the politics of the nation’s greatest conflict. Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” (2013) was built on one of the slave narratives that helped fuel the antislavery cause, but understandably its plot never made it to the consummation of the abolitionists’ campaign. Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012) explored how the Civil War led to emancipation, but managed the feat while marginalizing the very subjects of emancipation, relegating them to roles as onlookers and reminders of the moral gravity of the work undertaken by national leaders, who are white men all.

In contrast, “The Free State of Jones” is centrally concerned with the intersections of race and slavery with the Civil War and its domestic politics — with some interesting gender complications thrown in as well. In a film tradition typified by reconciliationist fantasies, evasive race politics, and unexamined gender norms, this alone situates it on progressive terrain. Its story accomplishes even more, for it is the tale of Newton Knight, the Mississippi native who led a rebellion within a rebellion, establishing the interracial Free State of Jones as a challenge to a Confederacy built on class privilege and white supremacy.

The film quickly establishes its moral order, making no bones about its objections to slavery nor its Unionist sympathies. Its protagonist, Newton Knight, comes from a region of Mississippi as poor in slaves as in other forms of wealth. As the Confederate government demands ever greater sacrifices to defend itself against Union invasion (it has become “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight”), the disillusioned soldier-gone-AWOL leads his community in rejecting Confederate authority and establishing an egalitarian republic. “Every man’s a man,” Knight recites as the key principle of the new state, a statement that concedes to gender norms something the film itself challenges. Women take on strong roles throughout, to the point where pre-teen girls show down Confederate cavalry with hastily assembled shotguns. Knight’s love relationships cross barriers of class and propriety, elevating his enslaved partner Rachel to a prominent (though secondary) role. Indeed the legacy of this union is depicted in the plight of Knight’s mixed-race great grandson Davis Knight, who in frequent flash-forwards is tried for marrying a white woman despite having no discernible African ancestry (more on which later).

This is a film for the post-Charleston age, which does not soft-pedal its cultural politics for fear of offending large segments of its audience. It is unabashedly anti-Confederate, offering an ideal of class unity across racial lines. Resisting the Confederacy represents the central external challenge, but achieving cross-racial community constitutes the film’s primary internal struggle, and the higher moral goal the resistance itself serves. “You cannot own a child of God,” cites Moses, Knight’s closest African American ally, but it will take more than a rejection of property in man to unite the people of Jones.

The film’s delicate work around the N-word illustrates screenwriter Garry Ross’s skill at accomplishing this. In its first half hour, the film assiduously places “Negro” on the lips of white southerners who might be expected to use its vulgar alternative. But when a white resident of Jones uses the N-word to scold a black resident for seeking an equal share of food, the risk of division becomes apparent. Knight lectures the bigots, warning them to appreciate their black neighbors “before a whole new war breaks out here.” The script thus leverages the word’s historical appearance against its modern volatility. At some point, Knight says, “everybody is just somebody else’s nigger” — a statement dismissive of the unique plight of a people singularly subjected to chattel bondage, but necessary for building the cross-racial unity required of the moment. (Later, Knight will respond to a question about whether his community is one of N-words by stating, “Ain’t no niggers up there at all,” reasserting the humanity he shares with African Americans.) The film thus fully embraces a kind of progressive ideal: a polity that, if only briefly, embodies a class alliance of non-elite men and women across racial lines.

To understand the meaning of this achievement requires recalling the history of the Civil War film tradition, which amazingly enough has still not fully assimilated the scholarship and cultural politics of the Civil Rights Movement. In the 1950s and 1960s, the old Lost Cause classics (e.g., “The Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind”) gave way to softened depictions of race in the war. Those like “Shenandoah” (1965) presaged later films by accommodating the presence of African Americans, but at the cost of factoring out the racial issues at the heart of the conflict, and hence its moral significance. Others, such as “Major Dundee” (1965) and “The Undefeated” (1969), depicted the post-war reconciliation of North and South in the struggle against centralizing states. All shared a libertarian ethos that grew into later films such as “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), which can largely be understood as a way of stripping the genre of Confederate sympathy without contending with the moral imperatives raised by slavery. The enemy became war itself, and the demands of powerful state authorities that it justified.

The genre never adopted a template that attempted to contend frankly with slavery. The most likely candidates were 1970s efforts like “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1973), a critically-hailed television version of Ernest Gaines’s fictional account of a woman who journeyed from slavery to civil rights. Yet it and another television milestone — “Roots” (1977) — failed to inaugurate a new era of Civil War interpretation in American film. When “Glory” (1989), the story of a black Civil War regiment, appeared, it came in the form of an androcentric military tale that failed to follow the story to the end of the war, let alone into the post-war Reconstruction — once mandatory for any epic examination of the era.

“Glory” broke a Vietnam-generated logjam on Civil War films, but most that have come out since then have seemed satisfied to let it mark an end rather than a beginning. Having tipped its hat to the role of race in the war, the genre largely excused itself from exploring it any further. “Gettysburg” (1993) put on screen Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels (1974), a popular novel that seems to excuse the racism of its central northern protagonist, Joshua Chamberlain. The follow-up, “Gods and Generals” (2003), is a notorious modern classic of Lost Cause mythology. Other films make similarly suspicious elisions. Ang Lee’s “Ride with the Devil” (1999) depicts border-state Confederate guerillas as historical underdogs (much like his Taiwanese compatriots), while the film version of Charles Frazer’s Confederate Odyssey, “Cold Mountain” (2003), is set in an Appalachia so far removed from the plantation zone that few blacks, slave or free, ever appear.

As recent works such as “12 Years” and “Lincoln” attest, the film tradition has become gradually more willing to focus on slavery itself. But it is frankly amazing that so many years have passed — six decades since Brown v. Board of Education, a half-century since the Civil Rights Act of 1964, forty years since the Bicentennial, and a quarter-century since the genre’s rebirth in “Glory” — without a more incisive cinematic depiction of an era that has served as the subject of some of the most important films of pre-World War II America. Earlier films captured the national mood on race, slavery, class, and gender — while also melding well with contemporary historical scholarship. The rebirthed genre has found it difficult to accomplish the same.

It’s not as if the historical profession hasn’t offered ample fodder for reinterpretations of the period. It would be impossible in so short a space to survey the massive transformations that have struck the historical profession since the Civil Rights Movement, but suffice to say that they have been profound. While pre-Civil Rights era historians once considered the war a needless consequence of a “blundering generation” of politicians, most modern professional scholars cannot imagine its key causes and consequences unrelated to slavery. And once the province of antiquarians’ fetish for battle maneuvers and military personalities, the war is more and more understood as embedded in a broad social and cultural matrix. Maris Vinovskis’s provocative 1989 question, “have social historians lost the Civil War?” can now be answered with a resounding negative. The current scholarship examines an incredibly wide range of questions — from the role of the enslaved in the emergence of the Union’s emancipation policy, to veterans’ problems readjusting to civilian life, to the role of women in border-state guerilla activity.

How do we explain the disjuncture between the scholarship and the films? Has the historical profession failed to teach the public? Or is it something intrinsic to the stories one can tell with the historical materials at hand? Perhaps it is a combination. Telling the historical stories Hollywood likes to tell — of heroic individuals overcoming crisis-ridden personal histories while also working toward a more just society with enhanced freedom for all. But it’s not often that history can be made to serve liberal agendas in feature films while also remaining true to the past.

Consider the negative example of “Gangs of New York” (2002), Martin Scorsese’s effort to re-situate the revenge-driven gangster film in the class politics of the Civil War North. In the film, the protagonist Amsterdam must slay Butcher Bill Cutting, the rival who killed his father. Amsterdam, positioned between his Irish heritage and creole birth, must gather a multicultural force to take down Cutting, whose working-class politics are built on a nativist aversion to foreign immigration. In the film, the climactic fight between the forces of tolerance and intolerance is inexplicably interrupted by the Draft Riots of July 1863, which are depicted as utterly divorced from the moral conflict going on in the city’s underworld. In reality, though, Irish immigrants hostile to fighting for the freedom of African Americans formed the core of the rioters. History thus directly contradicts Scorsese’s script, for immigrant roots did little to build the multicultural tolerance the film so desperately tries to endorse.

The truth is, Hollywood loves telling stories of slavery and freedom — so long as they are not about actual historical slaves. We give Best-Picture Oscars to films such as “Braveheart” (1995), which relates the birth of “freedom” through the efforts of 13th-century Scottish brigand William Wallace to free his people from the Norman Yoke. The success of such films inspires other efforts, such as Ridley Scott’s “Robin Hood” (2010), which attributes to the social bandit of lore credit for no less a statement of freedom than the Magna Carta. These Whiggish visions of history — it unfolds as the troubled but inevitable march of progress and liberty — carry easily into the story of the United States, as told in such films as “The Patriot” (2000). Many of the most popular historical movies are thus about white people becoming free, or freeing others. Obviously, this leaves little room for agonizing over the ambiguities of the actual past — of American Revolutionaries holding slaves, or of working-class Irish heroes rioting against black freedom. Too uncomfortable; too difficult.

The truth is, Hollywood loves telling stories of slavery and freedom — so long as they are not about actual historical slaves…We delight in narratives about everyone’s freedom struggle but actual African Americans.

This is affirmed by freedom struggle films that are freed from the rules of history. Science fiction — that most social of film genres — loves to pose challenges to oppression in convenient hypotheticals that offer audiences the requisite resolution (liberty triumphs!) without the attendant difficulties (liberty for whom?). Think of films such as “Star Wars” (1977), “Dune” (1984), “The Matrix” (1999), “Avatar” (2009), and “Elysium” (2013) — as well as “Jones” screenwriter Garry Ross’s own “The Hunger Games” (2012). All concern the politics of liberation; all covertly rehearse the American Revolution and the journey from political slavery to freedom and self-determination. When they appear at all, people of African descent (or various forms of “natives”) do so as objects of the benevolence of a charismatic white protagonist, who in exorcising his (yes, almost always male) personal ghosts also gets to liberate others.

It’s not hard to imagine the thought process involved in green-lighting these film projects and not others. After all, few risk-averse studio executives get excited about trying to market films about black history to audiences that are largely white. In interviews following his portrayal of South African anti-Apartheid activist Steven Biko in Richard Attenborough’s 1987 eponymous film, Denzel Washington acknowledged that “because of the reality of economics of a $22-million film, it would be mostly the story of the [white] journalist, Donald Woods,” who escaped South Africa with the martyr’s story. There are exceptions to this rule, such as the brilliant, non-Hollywood “District 9,” which glorifies in rather than camouflages its historical analogy. By and large, though, we delight in narratives about everyone’s freedom struggle but actual African Americans’.

This aversion owes partly to objections from African Americans themselves. No matter how true to its source material, “12 Years a Slave” is brutal in its portrayal of slavery. Viewing it is an exercise in civic reverence rather than entertainment. Such films inevitably spawn critics who worry that their popularity may owe as much to the prurience offered in depictions of slaves’ torture as to their moral importance. As Saidiya V. Hartman argued in Scenes of Subjugation (1997), the depiction of brutality on black bodies has been a staple of white allies’ calls for black liberation since the earliest days of antislavery. Others contend that inordinate focus on the past prevents progress in the present. The rapper Snoop Dogg recently offered a candid version of this objection when commenting on the re-make of the miniseries “Roots”: “They going to just to keep beating that shit into our heads about how they did us, huh?… Let’s create our own shit based on today, how we live and how we inspire people today. Black is what’s real. Fuck that old shit.”

Forces conspire, then, to make it risky to depict the most difficult parts of our past in big-budget feature films. In the old formula, works like “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind” extrapolated from a racist historiography to appeal to even more racist public attitudes; they depicted the redemption of white civilization from a central national authority that has mobilized black savagery in its campaign of vengeance against a people who dared to be “free.” A new formula, nowhere near as sure of itself, is still only slowly emerging, with each entrant into the Civil War-era genre of vital importance in gauging its ultimate direction amidst the shifting winds of our popular historical consciousness.

“The Free State of Jones” must be understood against this backdrop of a film tradition badly lagging behind a scholarly revolution in the ways the Civil War era has been understood. It offers the boldest political vision yet of any Hollywood feature film about the Civil War. More than any other to date, it centers on the class and racial iniquities of slave society, exposing not just the maltreatment of the enslaved, but the impoverishment of non-slaveholding whites as well. But this does not mean it is unassailable. Indeed, the film’s numerous shortcoming reveal much about the sticking places in our historical consciousness, and the challenging work that remains.

Most tellingly, the film partakes of a “white savior” formula that has been the bane of all too many films about the black freedom struggle, from Robert Gould Shaw’s character (Matthew Broderick) in “Glory” to Samuel Bass’s (Brad Pitt) in “12 Years a Slave.” Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight is about as ideal as they come: steadfast and resolute, yet also honorable and sensitive. His demons are all external. He never abuses his authority, loses his cool when it matters, or wrestles with character defects. His courage emboldens those around him, as when Rachel begins resisting the sexual advances of her master; “I couldn’t anymore,” she states. When Knight cannot understand the awe-filled looks of the slave fugitives he keeps free, Rachel explains to him that “nobody done nothing like that for them before.” At points, the film risks descending into “Robin Hood among the maroons,” or “Braveheart meets Solomon Northup.”

To the film’s credit, though, the story it chooses to tell is indeed an extraordinary tale that requires (by Hollywood standards) little departure from the known record — a failing that often fuels scholarly criticism of these films. Whereas “12 Years a Slave” depended on only one source — a slave narrative self-consciously produced in the years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) to perform the ideological work of antislavery — the story behind “The Free State of Jones” draws on many sources, from census and genealogical records to oral history and lore. The filmmakers have made a solid choice here, which relieves them of the need to fabricate much. Modern scholarship shows that the film is correct in moving the portrayal of dissention on the Confederate home front beyond its function as pretext in “Cold Mountain.” Ultimately the Confederacy lost because it could not conscript the huge fraction of its population necessary to stave off a numerically superior foe. Whether it came in the form of resentment toward the need to maintain the plantation police state through measures such as the twenty Negro law, or whether it came in the form of individual calculations weighing family security against the value of an independent Confederate state, homefront support proved decisive to Confederate defeat.

At a finer degree of resolution, it is surely forgivable that “Jones” (like many historical films) constructs composite figures to condense the cast. Lieutenant Barbour, for example, stands in for the many Confederate officials who deprived Jones County residents of cotton, livestock, and foodstuffs during the war. More critically, the filmmakers could not resist the urge for period detail not found in the record. We first encounter the fictional fugitive slave Moses confined in a horrible spiked collar, but I’m aware of no mention of this in the historical evidence surrounding the Jones uprising. Clearly, the filmmakers have borrowed the famous image of Wilson Chinn, an emancipated Louisiana freedman who in 1863 posed for a Union photographer in such a torture device. The resulting carte de visit likely served as propaganda, confirming the value of the fight against slavery in the northern public mind. Static images of African American workers in the field likewise recall contemporary photographs. (The film cleverly uses one of these staged scenes to suggest how little changed from before to after emancipation.) In toto, though, such gestures are not uncommon to historical feature films, and do not intrude on interpretations of scholars such as Victoria Bynum and Sally Jenkins, whose conclusions on the Jones uprising are, admittedly, often speculative. But they make “Jones” no less inaccurate than Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” a work that lavishly touted its debt to professional historian Doris Kearns Goodwin yet departed from the evidence in many film-like ways.

Wilson Chinn, a branded slave from Louisiana--Also exhibiting instruments of torture used to punish slaves (1863). Courtesy Library of Congress.
Wilson Chinn, a branded slave from Louisiana–also exhibiting instruments of torture used to punish slaves (1863).
Courtesy Library of Congress.

The biggest historical problem in “Jones” is also its most important feature. The pre-World War II film tradition around the Civil War notoriously posed the Reconstruction that followed the war as central to its themes. While Scarlett O’Hara merely stumbled upon the burning of Atlanta, the post-war years were her real hardship. In “The Birth of a Nation,” the war itself is merely pre-text to the real calamity that is to follow an honorable brothers’ war. Following the Civil Rights revolution, “Jane Pittman” and “Roots” sought to radically reinterpret Reconstruction as African Americans’ fight to make freedom meaningful, but the new vision never took hold in cinema. “Beloved” (1989), Oprah Winfrey’s beautiful evocation of Toni Morrison’s novel, is set in Reconstruction but is not about it. Not since “Sommersby” (1993) have audiences been treated to a Hollywood film with a meaningful setting in the immediate post-war period. That film used the end of the war as an excuse to narrate a soldier’s return home, much as in “Cold Mountain.” Sommersby’s antagonist is ultimately foiled by his incapacity to check his racial prejudice — the same motif as in “O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000) — but the film is really about identity and relationship rather than politics. Spielberg’s story of the Thirteenth Amendment doesn’t even get to its final ratification in December 1865; it ends with Lincoln’s death in April. And, according to its erroneous opening subtitle, “Django Unchained” takes place in 1859, “one year before the Civil War”; we never get to explore the life Django later crafted with Broomhilda.

“Jones” is the first major modern film to take Reconstruction seriously, and this alone makes it remarkable. That the film stumbles in this pioneering endeavor is a subject not for dismissal but contemplation. Once the Jones community is saved from impending extermination by Union victory, hope that the biracial community will thrive is reduced to despair. Government promises of forty acres and a mule are left unfulfilled, leaving black workers to toil in the fields just as they had before emancipation. “We free and we ain’t free,” says Moses. This apt summation feels clichéd to students of the subject, but does the necessary work of establishing a popular narrative for many unaccustomed to it.

The film should also be credited for portraying the Black Codes, the series of measures passed by the first southern state governments after Reconstruction. Crafted in 1865-66 by legislatures filled with former Confederates who had been pardoned on lenient terms by Lincoln’s inept successor Andrew Johnson, the codes severely limited the civil rights and working lives of former slaves. Among the most hated of their provisions were “apprenticeship” laws that compelled the children of former slaves to perform unpaid agricultural work for white planters. Knight saves Moses’s child from such a fate, but the film ignores the broader consequences of the laws, which led directly to the drafting of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibiting states from passing laws that discriminate against specific classes of people.

Inexplicably, this goes unmentioned, and we proceed directly from the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 to the Fifteenth, which passed in 1869 — two full years after Congress took over Reconstruction and undermined racial restrictions on the vote. What follows is a jumbled story of decline and disunity that mirrors the community’s rise in reverse symmetry. We somehow jump from 1867, when the first open elections were held in Mississippi, to 1875, when a subtitle tells us that in 1875 the Republicans garnered only two votes in Jones County. The film neglects the intervening years of black and Republican achievement, fast-forwarding to their overthrow. African Americans seek to organize Republican votes, but too many whites fear the retribution of white terrorists who murder black organizers. Elections are lost to fraud and the church, the community’s symbol of civic unity and political organization, is burned to the ground. In the end, despite Knight’s persistence, his community cannot be saved by the national state, for that state itself has failed in its resolve to protect the rights it went to war to win.

The film’s concatenated timeline of Reconstruction is not exceptional. “Birth of a Nation,” for example, completely omitted the period of Andrew Johnson’s rule, and thus the entire premise of Congressional Reconstruction. But if we are to see more films examining the period, it will be important to craft a narrative that makes sense. This is no small feat, for if the moral purpose of the Civil War remains open to debate, the meaning of Reconstruction is truly challenging. We are still waiting for that movie — a big-budget feature film that offers Reconstruction itself as an American freedom struggle.

The genre’s failure to depict Reconstruction is the most telling reminder that American popular culture still has not come fully to grips with the real meaning and consequences of the Civil War. Perhaps this is so because Reconstruction is now rightly regarded within the academy as a narrative of decline rather than victory — of diminished rather than expanded freedom. To its credit, “Jones” wrestles with this. As Rachel comforts Newton amidst the experiment’s implosion, “It ain’t your fault we lost that war.” The downward trajectory of the actual historical narrative will continue to bedevil filmmakers. Filmmakers might choose to free themselves from convention and embrace narratives that end in collective defeat. The record, though, is not good, as 2004’s box-office disaster “The Alamo” attests.

The other possibility is to find ways of wringing success from the jaws of failure. It is likely for this reason, I suspect, that Ross chose to frame the story of Newton Knight around the 1948 trial of his great-grandson, Davis Knight, for violating Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws by marrying a white woman. While Davis loses his case, he scores a moral point that the audience knows will soon be vindicated by civil rights gains. In this way, the film links a story of freedom’s failure to a future of success. This is the same move that “Jane Pittman” makes, and may become a theme in any successful Reconstruction formula that emerges.

We might dare hope for even more. If the popular historical consciousness ever does become capable of telling stories of Reconstruction’s failure, it may be a healthy sign of maturation, an indication that we can come to own our disgraces as well as our glories. For no period in our past ever put our commitment to democracy to a stricter test, and none has ever witnessed a more ignominious failure. It is the very stuff of epic history. Having submitted the fate of slavery to a trial of arms, the nation could determine the fate of slavery, but not of freedom. The victorious Union struggled to define that condition in law and constitution, but lacked the political will to make it a reality on the ground. In its zeal to achieve in peace what arms could not secure it in war, the white supremacist South launched the most potent terrorist campaign in American history. It won by breaking the will of the public to support continual federal intervention. This left African Americans friendless against those who refused to grant them the most basic human dignities, alone to battle for decades against the grossest perversion of democracy the country has ever known. As Newton Knight says of the national politicians who permitted the South to return to home rule, “their war is over.” African Americans’ had just begun.

Patrick Rael

Patrick Rael is Professor of History at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. He is the author of Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (North Carolina, 2002), which earned Honorable Mention for the Frederick Douglass Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition. He is also the editor of African-American Activism before the Civil War: The Freedom Struggle in the Antebellum North (Routledge, 2008), and co-editor of Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African-American Protest Literature (Routledge, 2001). His most recent book, Eighty-Eight Years: The Long Death of Slavery in the United States, 1777-1865 (University of Georgia Press, 2015), explores the Atlantic history of slavery to understand the exceptionally long period of time it took to end chattel bondage in America.

4 Replies to “Right and Wrong in “The Free State of Jones”: Making Sense of the Civil War Film Tradition”

  1. Thank you for this and for your great insight. I wonder if you have ever had a chance to read The Little Friend by Donna Tartt . It was this novel that introduced me to Newtown Knight and the Free State of Jones. I think very few young American kids learn about this in their studies. Why? I want to read your article again and take it all in. I have not seen many of the movies that you spoke of here and I just want to learn more.Maybe I can at least see this one soon and I will be able to make more sense of it all. I do highly recommend that novel and think that you would enjoy its historical aspects.

  2. Perhaps one could suggest that Lin Manuel Miranda consider Reconstruction as the subject of his next Broadway musical?

  3. thanks for the review. i usually read the review before watch the movies. but didn’t read fully because i don’t wanna know whats is happens last. so as this review i decide to watch this movie so thanks for the review.

  4. I found your commentary, searching for historical background after watching the movie. You have a truly unique perspective, and I thank you for including so many sources. Most of the movies mentioned; I have seen, and I readily absorbed your reviews, most likely due to my exposure to topics not usually found in History classes, during my tenure as a US Army Equal Opportunity Advisor. This piece is a great ‘jumping off’ point for my continued research, which hopefully will include other works you have authored. Do you lecture? I would love to hear more.

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