Free State of Jones – 2016
Written and Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali,
Keri Russell, Brian Lee Franklin, Jacob Lofland, Sean Bridgers, Brad Carter
Who knew that there was a rebellion to the rebellion? There are several passages in Free State of Jones where it feels like one is being educated without sacrificing too much in the entertainment department. We get the feeling of a movement from the ground up in watching Matthew McConaughey move further away from stardom and closer towards investment in the character of Newton Knight, a southern Civil War deserter turned man for all people in Jones County, Mississippi.
His quest begins early enough, when he sees a young man from his town (Lofland) who is conscripted into fodder for the South. Knight does what he can to protect the boy, but, come on, what are his chances? He takes the boy back home to his family and knowing his desertion puts him in peril, decides to stay with his wife and child anyway. While there, he discovers that local forces have been confiscating from the poor and leaving the rich to continue profiteering.
He begins to go Robin Hood on these forces and it leaves him wounded and wanted and into the good graces of a band of runaway slaves. He quickly becomes one with the group, leading them to resist from the protection of the swamp.
The Siege of Vicksburg leads a large swath of the Southern army to desert and Knight’s group is there to welcome them. As the group grows, they begin to become more successful in their efforts to procure their county as a land free of the tyranny of the slaveholders who own the land and give pittance to everyone else.
Gary Ross treats the material respectfully. It’s filled with plenty of moments that every story contains, but there are also nuggets here and there revealing things about the Southern U.S. before and since the war that are borne of the horrible legacy of the Democrats that took hold of the region. This includes the strange dynamic of the Knight clan that is a direct result of the circumstances.
The story is interspersed with a court case regarding Mississippi’s miscegenation laws in the 1950’s and one of Knight’s descendants. This, along with the last 30 minutes of the movie goes some way to detract from the hopefulness exhibited earlier. The overall effect is muting, but feels authentic. This includes an genuine representation of the way Democrats of the South eliminated the rights expressed in the 15th Amendment until Republicans in the U.S. Congress helped to finally secure justice to all people 100 years after its passage.
This is the kind of film that will be hard for the Hank Williams, Jr. set to comprehend. The South that perpetrated the Civil War were predominantly plantation owners who convinced the poor in their towns to side with their cause. In showing a group of real outsiders as being the most American in spirit, it goes a fair distance in educating.
The key role in the film outside of its main protagonist is Ali’s Moses. Through Moses, we see the absolutely integral story of the Free State of Jones. When we first see him, he has an inhumane contraption stuck around his neck. Through the removal of this sign of oppression, we see Moses grow into one that fights for his own rights through combat. Eventually as the war ends, his fight becomes more figurative, but no less worthy and definitely still lethal. Ali’s performance is something that will resonate.
McConaughey is certainly uninterested in presenting himself as a movie star. His performance stands in direct contrast to, say, DiCaprio’s overly desperate attempts and dramatization in The Revenant. Whereas that film goes out of its way to change history in order to make its protagonist the only sympathetic figure in the story, we get more from …Jones by showing Knight as an overly well meaning, slightly charismatic but also a flawed individual who has a loose understanding of marital fidelity. There are no attempts at swaying the material to make it look like he has no choice. In fact, we see that he quite clearly has options.
This reviewer will take McConaughey’s complicated and somewhat creepy Knight over the good guy with no flaws any day.
(**** out of *****)