Review: 'Free State of Jones' and the Not-so-beautiful South

The interrelations between the characters may be superficial and there’s a wearisome didactic element, but this new film contains some powerful scenes and recounts a little-known episode from the American Civil War

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Matthew McConaughey stars as a Confederate army deserter who establishes his own militia in 'Free State of Jones.'
Matthew McConaughey stars as a Confederate army deserter who establishes his own militia in 'Free State of Jones.' Credit: Murray Close, AP

'Free State of Jones' - Written and directed by Gary Ross; with Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, Mahershala Ali, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers

This is filmmaking as a history lesson. The director, Gary Ross (“Pleasantville,” “The Hunger Games”), tells a story based on true events that took place during the American Civil War and afterward. Even reviewers in the United States noted that they were largely unfamiliar with the story, nor did they know much about Newton Knight, the figure who fomented the events. From this point of view, “Free State of Jones” is quite interesting, even if its production values tend toward the prosaic and its didactic side prevents it from probing the story’s historical and ideological implications.

Free State of Jones Official Trailer #1 (2016)

The plot gets underway in 1862, a year after the start of the war. Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a poor farmer in Mississippi who was forced to leave behind his wife, Serena (Keri Russell), after being drafted into the Confederate army. He serves as a medic on the blood-drenched battlefields: The film’s opening sequence shows soldiers from the South marching straight at waiting Northern troops who mow them down with gunfire. Knight deserts, in the wake of a family event, and joins a group of slaves who have fled the cotton fields.

He doesn’t believe in the campaign in which he’s been compelled to take part. He thinks the war serves only the rich people of the South – a historical approach that contradicts what we’ve seen in previous films about the Civil War, most notably “Gone with the Wind.” The law stipulates that if a Southern family has 20 slaves, the firstborn son is exempt from military service; and if the family has 40 slaves, another son is exempt, too.

On his way home from the war, Knight also witnesses Confederate soldiers looting the poor, leaving them without the pigs and corn that will guarantee them food in these difficult times. Indeed, the romantic gloss that has characterized representations of the South on the big screen is largely absent here.

Knight and the runaway slaves find shelter in a swamp and establish a militia. He declares this area, in which they clash with Confederate troops, the “Free State of Jones.” The upshot is that a small army is now rebelling against the rebel army – a complex situation whose potential Ross fails to develop adequately.

Another problem stems from the fact that the film is the story of a white man who leads and redeems a group of black people. Knight is portrayed as a determined idealist: Almost every sentence he utters and action he takes is laden with a message. However, there is little depth to Knight’s character, even when his private life becomes complicated following his meeting with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave on a nearby plantation who risks her life to bring him and his comrades food and information. Knight falls in love with her; when his wife Serena tracks him down, the three live together.

Race relations at boiling point

The movie treats this development as just another historical fact, without delving into its personal implications. The two women simply get along, even after Rachel has a son by Knight. This element of the story gives rise to the writer-director’s most problematic structural decision: From time to time, we are catapulted 85 years into the future, to a Mississippi court where a man named Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), a descendant of Newton Knight, is accused of marrying a white woman – in violation of the state’s race laws. The message is that even decades after the war, nothing has changed in the South. But the choice of this structure is somewhat schematic – certainly now when race relations in the United States are again at boiling point.

The film’s main story, which portrays an unfamiliar chapter from the Civil War, is more satisfying than its final part, set in the postwar era. Here, we see how some plantation owners refused to accept the new reality and even tried to abduct children in order to use them as slaves; how the freed slaves had to fight for their newly given right to vote; and how the Ku Klux Klan battled against them. After starting as an intimate history lesson, the film degenerates later and tells its story in broad strokes, partially losing its grip.

Still, “Free State of Jones” doesn’t fail to generate interest, even if it lacks any cinematic distinction. The depiction of relations between the characters, including the friendship that develops between Knight and a slave, Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), doesn’t run deep. But there are a number of powerful scenes and, however constrained the attempt to imbue the historical story with contemporary relevance might seem, the attempt itself remains estimable – certainly in light of what likely lies in store for the United States in the near future.

In the lead role, McConaughey gives yet another performance in which he expresses boundless determination with gaunt facial features – this time supported by a beard. It’s a rather monotonous performance, though atoned for by the actor’s screen presence.

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