Free State of Jones (IM Global, STX Entertainment, Huayi Brothers Media, 2016)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Kerri Russell
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Film Rating: R for Brutal Battle Scenes and Disturbing Graphic Images
By October of 1862, the American Civil War was entering a new phase. With Confederates being pushed back from Maryland and Kentucky, Lincoln issues his Emancipation Proclamation, freeing those slaves in the states in rebellion. In the South, the Confederacy begins conscripting men into the army (A similar practice also goes on in the north, in the name of the “draft”). However, this conscription also comes with the “20 Negro Law,” meaning that those families with 20 or more slaves could be exempt from it. This policy would lead to great turmoil in the south. In particular, the state of Mississippi would see one of their own, a deserted soldier named Newton Knight, lead a band of former slaves and white subsistence farmers and other deserters against the Confederacy. For a time, Knight and his band successfully drive Confederate forces out of Jones County, and other counties, in Mississippi. With no aid from either Confederate or Union armies, they set up their own “country,” calling it the Free State of Jones County. The subject of Knight and his guerrilla band are the subject of the film Free State of Jones, a dramatic film from director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville).
The film begins in October, 1862, as we see Confederate and Union forces engaged in brutal fighting near Corinth, Mississippi. Here, we are introduced to Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a soldier who’s helping bring wounded from the battlefield back to the hospital camps. When his nephew arrives after being conscripted, he does his best to keep him safe. Sadly, during trench fighting, his nephew is shot, and his attempts to get him aide at the hospital fails, ultimately leading to his death. Despondent, Knight decides to return the body back to his home, ultimately becoming a deserter. While at home, he sees the affects of the war on the people there, as the Confederate Army takes food and livestock from local farmers, leaving them with little to subsist from. Knight ultimately joins a band of freed slaves, who are soon joined by more deserters and other white farmers, who ultimately join together to fight against the Confederacy, and drive them from Jones county. We then follow Knight and his friends through the post-war period, as Reconstruction threatens to return men and women of color back into slaves, and attacks from the Ku Klux Klan send fear to all who oppose them.
Whether you view Knight and his band as heroes, fighting an oppressive system in the name of freedom, or as villains enacting brutal attacks against the government they took an oath to, there is no denying that their story is a very dramatic one, and ripe for a big-screen offering. The ideas that it espouses (Freedom and liberty, the right to own your own land, and keep what you grow for yourself, and sacrifice) are themes that are still important to this day. Knight truly believed what he fought for, and the men and women who followed him were willing to fight and die for those same ideals, even if they didn’t always agree with Knight.
It’s just a shame that this little-known story from the American Civil War couldn’t have been presented in a better film. While it is far from a horrible film, it is a disappointing one for certain. A lot of the weakness boils down to the screenplay for the film. While the film covers over fourteen years of time, it does so in a way that is downright dull at times. The filmmakers chose to devote most of the film’s screen time in the first hour to the buildup to the events leading to the creation of the Free State. While this does give us time to get to know Knight, the people he would come to lead, and how the situation affects them, it spends a little too long getting there. It is just a series of meetings between people, discussions and speeches about how things are, and what should be done about it, and long glances and walks from place to place.
When events do finally move toward driving Confederates out of Jones County, it is done, and over very quickly. What should’ve been the main focus of the film takes up just twenty or so minutes of screen time. The last forty minutes or so of the film deals with Reconstruction, and how Knight attempted to fight the return of slavery in, albeit by another name, and getting men of color the right to vote. While this part of the story is compelling, it feels by this point that the filmmakers are just wanting to tell as much of Knight’s story as possible in one film. This ends up hurting the film, as it starts to feel like too much on the plate.
What’s more, the filmmakers also chose to include a subplot with one of Knight’s descendants in 1947. The subplot tells of Davis Knight and his getting married. However, because Davis was the great-great-grandson of Knight and his wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a black woman, that made him 1/8 black, and therefore, a black person not eligible to marry a white in Mississippi at that time. He was sent to prison for this “crime,” but the conviction was eventually overturned. While it is also a compelling and powerful story, it deserves to be told in its own film, and not in a film whose focus was on a completely different story altogether.
And therein lies the central problem of Free State of Jones. At the end of the day, the film attempts to tell three different stories in its 139-minute running time, making it a film with very little focus. For those who might not be familiar with the era and its people, this might make the film difficult to follow. And despite these different stories, the story drags from time to time. It definitely feels more like something that should’ve been a History Channel docudrama, with historian interview thrown in (Replacing the film’s use of text titles to explain events).
However, despite these issues, there is much to admire in the film. It’s beautifully-shot, and has a very powerful cast. McConaughey does a fantastic job as Newton Knight, bringing this character to life with a realism that does make you admire what he stood for. Mbatha-Raw gives a very effective performance as Rachel, the slave and healer who eventually becomes Knight’s wife, and joins him in his quest. Mahershala Ali, as the runaway slave Moses, gives the film’s most subtle performance, understating his character’s desire to be treated as a man despite the color of his skin.
In probably the film’s most powerful moment, when Knight asks Moses why he wants to be free, he gives the film’s greatest sentiment: “Because you cannot own a child of God.” It is this scene, and the interaction between the characters, that really makes Free State of Jones come alive. We understand these people, and care for them. So, when brutal acts come to them, we are saddened and angered by their loss.
The few action scenes are well-shot and edited, giving the film a visceral impact. The recreation of the fighting around Corinth, is well-staged, exciting, and brutal. There are a few historical quibbles (Formations seem to not be consistent between shots, in addition to uniforms and equipment looking a little inaccurate), but it conveys the brutality of war, and its impact on the individual.
However, despite all the good it has going for it, this is not a film I can fully recommend. While it does have great performances, and some great technical merits in how it’s shot, Free State of Jones squanders its opportunity to tell a powerful story by delivering a film that lacks a focused narrative, and is boring at times. Only those with a real interest in the period, and learning more about this story, will find something to appreciate. But even for history buffs like myself, it leaves a lot to be desired. In the end, Free State of Jones is neither a good experience, nor a bad one. It’s just a middling experience.
Overall Grade: 5/10, or C.