MOVIE REVIEW: Free State of Jones
“FREE STATE OF JONES”—3 STARS
Since Hollywood has become a hit-generating factory more than a garden of artistry and truth, a historical drama film like “Free State of Jones” only has to raise its barometer to a midpoint of “good enough.” That is because there is nearly an unwinnable tug-of-war of disservice between history lessons and entertainment value, especially when your poster reads “based on a true story.” Veer away from the facts too far with dramatic license and the film becomes disingenuous. Veer too close to history without cinematic flashiness and no one will pay to see it. “Free State of Jones” falls somewhere in the middle of that mud pit.
The pedigree is wholly present. Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey continues the “McConaissance” to play historical figure Newton “Newt” Knight, a Confederate stretcher-bearer we meet at the 1862 Battle of Corinth during the American Civil War. After a harrowing trench battle claims the life of a relative from his homefront of Jones County, Mississippi, Newt deserts from the Rebs to bring the body home and return to his wife Serena (Keri Russell) and infant son. Irked by the passing of the Twenty Negro Law that protects the rich from being drafted into the war and Confederate soldiers’ plundering “taxation” of his fellow poor rural farmers, Newt begins to question this war’s honor. He raises arms to confront the local troops, represented by the cruel Lt. Barbour (Brad Carter) and Col. Hood (Thomas Francis Murphy) and aids his neighbors defending their personal property and crops.
To evade capture and a hangman’s sentence as a deserter, Newt leaves Serena and takes refuge in the mangrove marshes of the nearby swamps. He is welcomed by a small group of runaway slaves, similar in dilemma, led by the stoic Moses (Mahershala Ali) and supported from the outside by the benevolent Creole house servant Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Newt advocates and acts against the unfair Confederacy with raids to reacquire the taken food and supplies. As the war momentum deteriorates through 1863, their movement rallies more support and armaments. What began as a half-dozen grows to a company of 40 and then nearly 300 by the next year.
At the center through it all is Newton Knight’s emerging leadership. McConaughey, with period-appropriate dental work, is given several speeches and sermons that emphasize the actor’s soothing charisma to portray this stalwart leader. Writer and director Gary Ross lets the man’s plain speaking flourish on its own with being grossly preachy or over-indulgently backed by a drowning symphony of musical strings. This is characterization fairer, balanced, and far more believable than something like Mel Gibson’s superhero-ish lead in “The Patriot” from 16 years ago. Better yet, the history of the real Newton Knight checks out for the large majority of the portrayed events of “Free State of Jones.” McConaughey is never the movie’s problem and makes for an inspiring central figure.
Backing McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw is a loving presence that respectfully builds the film’s secondary romance through kinship and time spent over hot and out-of-place passion. For better or worse, the 33-year-old Brit, recently seen in “Concussion” as well, easily nails these spousal/love interest secondary parts. She really needs more lead opportunities like “Belle” and “Beyond the Lights.” Hopefully, more casting directors take notice.
Ross, known best for “Seabiscuit” and the first “Hunger Games” entry, keeps the message sober and tries hard to avoid mistakes of Hollywood bravura. “Free State of Jones” is admirably comprehensive to follow the Newton Knight story for nearly 15 years. Forgivable short cuts and accelerations are made through time stamps of exposition to streamline that amount of time as best that it can. Wisely, Ross leans on history over spectacle. When it needs to, the film boils with intense, unflinching violence and gains the right resonance. There is enough to captivate your attention without becoming an outright war film or an exhausting lecture. Moments high and low artfully absorb the rustic Louisiana beauty shot by Benoit Delhomme (“The Theory of Everything”).
The more unforgivable flaws center on narrative choices and misplaced emotion. The easiest knock is the film’s 139-minute length and lumbering pace, especially for a summer release. Composer Nicholas Britell’s score does little to punctuate moments that need more heft. Moreover, Ross employs a second historical subplot that flashes forward to a 1940s court case involving Newton’s great-grandson Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). Snippets of that thread are shuffled within the main story with fumbled transitioning. While its purpose for existing is meant to add a sense of irony and destiny, the angle feels terribly distracting and underwhelming. It is a ripe place that could have filled an epilogue note instead of 20 minutes of screen time.
The most egregious flaw becomes the misleading investment and use of Moses. This is where fact-checking makes you angry. “House of Cards” regular Mahershala Ali comports himself with pride and power as the right hand man. He can inspire with presence the way McConaughey can with words. The trouble is his character is a fictional composite instead of any true figure in the Knight history. As the film unfolds, the choice to have the Moses character become what he does reeks a little too closely to a historical version of the tragic “black friend” solely present to elevate and gild the “white man hero.” It is not “The Legend of Bagger Vance”-bad, by any stretch, and it is perfectly reasonable to present a portrayal of African-Americans with less than ideal emancipation during Reconstruction. It still feels exploitative and a mistake.
Those two massive strikes spoil what could have been genuinely positive across the board. There is enough weight and history in “Free State of Jones” to stand on its own without such movie crutches and creations. To its credit, the film does enough to do make the audience do what you are doing right now, reading reviews, Googling names, and skimming real history that you didn’t hear in your textbooks as a kid or college student. That counts as a median win.
LESSON #1: BURNING WAS THE GO-TO EQUALIZER PUNISHMENT FOR A LONG TIME—Threaten the army? Get your house burned down. Help out a fugitive? Get your place of business burned down. Organize for a cause against the oppressors? Get your church burned down. How do you get them back? Burn their stuff down in return. Yup, that will solve things.
LESSON #2: IT’S NEVER FUN TO SEE AN INNOCENT PERSON KILLED—Call out the long-gestating “white guilt“ argument of movies like this all you want. Regardless of skin color, seeing someone blameless die senselessly, whether it’s on the battlefield or at the end of a noose, is never fun, period.
LESSON #3: THE REALITY OF RECONSTRUCTION AFTER THE CIVIL WAR— The conclusion of the Civil War did not end Knight and his followers’ uphill battle for equality. The rich stayed rich and the power of the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment only took away slave ownership, not the racism or oppression. Most cursory American history courses skip from Appomattox and to the Industrial Revolution of the 1900s and forget about this galvanizing time.
LESSON #4: THE COMMON GOALS OF FREEDOM—Knight’s rhetoric leaned heavily on god-fearing influences like Galatians 6:7-9. He wanted equal opportunity and treatment from soldiers and the powers that be. Simply, he saw freedom through the belief that every man has a right to what he or she works for and is rightly theirs, from their property to the food they grow. Later, that extended to having a say in matters with the voting rights of the 15th Amendment.