It’s easy to see the appeal of the story, though. In 1863, a poor Mississippi farmer named Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) led a rebellion of deserters and escaped slaves against the Confederacy, waging guerrilla warfare from the swamps and eventually declaring their county the “Free State of Jones.” After the war, Knight moved away from white society with his new wife, a war ally and former slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). He also tried to help with the Reconstruction effort, but soon saw that the old racist laws were simply being replaced by new racist laws. The real-life Knight lived well into the 20th Century; he died in 1922 having fathered 14 children. (Some of these were kids from his previous marriage to a white woman, Serena, played here by Keri Russell. In what may be a sop to contemporary mores, the film shows her with only one child.)
On its surface, Free State of Jones seems like yet another story of a Great White Savior — a tale to
When we first meet Newt, he’s serving as a reluctant nurse in the Confederate army in 1862, immersed in the gore and horror of the battlefield. He’s suspicious of the war (“I’m tired of helping them fight for their cotton,” he rails to his comrades, amid protestations that the war is really about “honor”), but he winds up deserting almost by accident, as he tries to save his fresh-faced nephew Daniel from the savagery of combat. Upon returning home, Newt discovers that Confederate soldiers have raided his and other families’ lands, seizing grain and hogs and corn, condemning them to starvation. Meanwhile, a recently-passed “20 Negro Law,” deeming that anyone who owns 20 slaves can avoid military service, confirms to Newt and his neighbors that this is a case of “a poor man’s fighting a rich man’s war”: Hard-luck farmers are dying to maintain an institution that only benefits rich plantation owners.
After a run-in with the hounds of the local military police, Newt finds himself hiding out in the woods with a band of escaped slaves, secretly ministered to by Rachel, still in the service of her abusive white master. Among the runaways is Moses (Mahershala Ali), who jokes of a dog that bit Newt, “You must taste like we do, the way it latched onto you.” Slowly, the group becomes self-sufficient out there in the swamps, as others find their way to them; after the Southern defeat at Vicksburg, their ranks swell seemingly overnight.
Ross is a director whose career has encompassed both soft-focus Oscar bait and franchise fare. But as he proved with the first Hunger Games, he’s better with action movies than he is with prestige pictures. (Some will disagree: Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, for all their musty reverence, were critical and
But as events accelerate — as the Confederacy is defeated and Reconstruction begins, along with the violent rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the eventual passage of the 15th Amendment — Ross loses the thread. The movie is gradually overwhelmed by onscreen title cards doling out historical context, along with the occasional informative and/or inspirational speech. I applaud the director’s thoroughness — he doesn’t want this to be another Hollywoodized bulldozing of complexity and veracity. But I would have gladly given up all those onscreen facts for made-up scenes of Knight and his brethren interacting with one another, demonstrating what this rebellion and freedom meant for them.
The clutter doesn’t end there. Ross often cuts to a 1948 court case, when Newt and Rachel’s great-grandson was convicted under Mississippi’s miscegenation laws for marrying a white woman. That's also an interesting story, but it's doled out in flashes — grace notes, really — so that these characters
Ross does throw in an occasional shot or moment that suggests what
Nevertheless, Ross’ failure is a noble one: He seems obsessed with this