Free State of Jones
Directed by: Gary Ross
Starring: Matthew McConaughey,
Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali
Rated R for brutal battle scenes
and disturbing graphic images
2 hrs., 19 min.
After being treated recently to some powerful films about black history (12 Years a Slave and Selma), Free State of Jones feels odd and out of place. Ostensibly a real-life story about a small county in Mississippi whose residents rebelled against the Confederacy, Free State also takes on the early roots of civil rights, voting rights and interracial marriage. It’s a lot to ask from a single film, especially one that claims to be true, and predictably, the results are mixed.
Newton “Newt” Knight (Matthew McConaughey) has been conscripted to serve in the Confederate Army. He works as a nurse, carrying the wounded from battlefields to nearby medical compounds. Newt sees the war less as a quest for honor and more as a means for the rich to get richer and the poor to grow even poorer.
It all comes to a head when his young cousin Daniel (Jacob Lofland) appears at his camp, scared and AWOL from his unit. Newton takes Daniel under his wing, but before he can ensure the boy’s safety, a sniper’s bullet ends his life. Newt decides he’s had enough and deserts home to Ellisville in Jones County, Mississippi.
He is shocked to learn that local families are being stripped of their corn and hogs by a Confederate supply officer, Lt. Barbour (Bill Tangradi). Outraged, he comes to the rescue of one family and ends up being pursued by Confederates and bitten severely by an attack dog. He takes shelter in the saloon of his Aunt Sally (Jill Jane Clements) and is eventually whisked out into the swamp for his own protection.
There he discovers a small band of escaped slaves who take him in, feed him and nurse him back to health. Over the months, the group grows larger via fellow deserters. Eventually Newt and his ragtag army of blacks and whites run raids on Confederate supply lines and establish what becomes known as the Free State of Jones. Not surprisingly, the Confederates fight back and the ensuing conflict becomes deadly.
Director Gary Ross, a screenwriter and director for such hits as The Hunger Games, takes on this complex project with one big advantage: He has a great cast, not only in the gritty acting of McConaughey, but also in the subtle performances of Newt’s black nurse and eventual wife, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and his right-hand lieutenant and former slave, Moses (Mahershala Ali).
Ross does the right thing for this setting. He uses the camera to let the land and the swamp speak for themselves: quiet, slow, with dialogue that is often understated. It’s a powerful combination of grit, human suffering and complex relationships.
Unfortunately, Ross makes the story unwieldy by flashing forward to the trial of Newt’s great-grandson, Davis (Brian Lee Franklin). Despite the fact that Davis is a white descendant of Newt’s first wife, Serena (Keri Russell), he is convicted of miscegenation, a charge later overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court.
As if that weren’t enough, Free State dives briefly into the controversial political aftermath of the war’s end in which freed blacks try to establish their right to vote in Mississippi. What feels awkward here is the role of Newt in becoming the local leader of black civil rights. It’s a story that Ross brushes over as an addendum, and the viewer is left to wonder about Newt’s real-life politics.
This film is disappointing, given the outstanding performances of its cast. Taken as is, no one is really a hero in this film. It’s about brutality, survival and the quest for freedom, whether political, economic or personal. As this film demonstrates, freedom can be finely interpreted based on politics, race, class, even statehood, proving that the real story of freedom is much dirtier and more complex when we decide as a country who gets to be free and who doesn’t.