- on Friday, 24 June 2016 14:58
- by Frank Wilkins
As gangly and unstable as a newborn colt, Free State of Jones is the well-intentioned but ultimately heavy-handed and torturous story about a virtually unknown episode of American history, and an even lesser-known man. Historians still debate the facts to this day, but writer/director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit) argues that poor Mississippi farmer Newton Knight, was a renegade, crusader, war deserter, and a patriot.
Ross bases his story on historical facts surrounding Knight who, during the American Civil War, led an unlikely band of poor white southern farmers and runaway slaves in a defiant revolt against the Confederacy. But the film isn’t about Knight the historical figure, nor is it about slavery, rebellion, racism, hatred, nor any of the hundreds of other singularly significant aspects of the troubled times at hand. No, no. Ross has much bigger fish to fry. It’s about all of those things. And that’s part of what trips Ross up with his film that tries to cover too much ground – both chronologically and conceptually – in a feature-length film. His reach is simply too grandiose and momentous for even a 2+ hour film. Free State of Jones is much better suited for a multi-part mini-series that allows us to struggle in the period, spend time with the characters, and eventually fall in step with their drive and motivation. As it is, Free State of Jones plays as a rushed historical checklist of one of America’s darkest moments.
The film begins with Knight (Matthew Mcconaughey) toiling at the front lines of the Confederate Army as a medic tasked with tending to the sick and wounded. Ross’s battle scenes, some of the film’s best moments, are intensely graphic as his camera never shies away from the full throes of battle and the horrific things that happen when row after row of men face off while virtual walls of lead shred human flesh and bone. It’s tough stuff to watch, but well deserving of its R rating.
It’s easy to understand Knight’s inner turmoil and complete disenchantment with life when, shortly before learning of the Confederate’s deplorable “20 Negro Law” which allows southern landowners to opt out of conscription if they own 20 or more slaves, his young nephew is slaughtered right next to him on the battlefield. Knight retreats home with his nephew’s body, thereby abandoning his post and officially becoming a war deserter – a capital offense. It’s at this point Knight realizes the roiling conflict is a rich man’s war and poor man’s fight – and he has no money nor does he own slaves.
Once back on his farm, Knight learns first hand of the Confederate policy of pillaging private farmhouses for corn, livestock, clothes, or anything else they deem necessary for the war effort. This, coupled with his wife’s (Kerri Russell) disappearance, is enough to send Knight retreating to the southern Mississippi swamps where he eventually hooks up with a ragtag bunch of runaway black slaves led by Moses (Mahershala Ali), white war deserters, and poor farmers to form an armed community of agitators. While in hiding, Knight becomes acquainted with a young black female slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) with whom he eventually settles down and has children.
From this point forward, things begin to get a bit murky and Ross’s attention becomes more surface level as the film’s last third feels like a rapid-fire slideshow of barely-touched-upon historical events. As we know, the South didn’t simply drop its arms and acquiesce to Lincoln’s terms after Lee’s surrender. It took decades for the insurgent violence to reach tolerable levels. This segment swooshes by as we witness the birth of the KKK, rampant voting prejudice at the polls, reconstruction, and even spend valuable screen time visiting an annoying flash forward to a 1940s miscegenation court case that involves one of Knight’s descendants – legally considered black with 1/8th African blood – who is accused of marrying a white woman.
Newton Knight’s story isn’t without controversy and is certainly one that needs to be told. Somewhere at the teeny tiny heart of the film is a stirring correlation to today’s fractured society that is still struggling to reconcile our racial and cultural differences. But Ross never spends enough time with the important stuff that stirs our soul. It was a rough time to be alive and a pivotal historical turning point that continues to shade our country to this day. Though Ross tries, it’s not something that can be covered in a single film. Free State of Jones is just a glossy picture book recollection of an important man who did something really important – we kind of know who and sort of know what. But forget about understanding why.
MPAA Rating: R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images
Runtime: 139 mins
Director: Gary Ross
Writer: Gary Ross
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali
Genre: War | History | Drama
Tagline: Based on the incredible true story.
Memorable Movie Quote: "Take my hand!"
Distributor: STX Entertainment
Release Date: June 24, 2016
DVD/Blu-ray Release Date: No details available.
Synopsis: Written and directed by four-time Oscar nominee Gary Ross , and starring Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey. Free State of Jones is an epic action-drama set during the Civil War, and tells the story of defiant Southern farmer, Newt Knight, and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy.
Banding together with other small farmers and local slaves, Knight launched an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones.
Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, distinguishing him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance long beyond the War.