Free State of Jones is a gritty, well purposed Civil War drama. I can’t speak to its historical accuracy, but do appreciate its good intentions. On the surface, it’s another film about slavery and race relations in the antebellum south from a white perspective. The approach is heavy handed and preachy with parts of the story feeling like a dictated history lesson. Normally this would be a death blow. It isn’t here. Free State of Jones has a mountain of substance to convey.
The film opens in 1863 Mississippi during a bloody battle. Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a southern conscript, is dealt a devastating loss. He’s had enough of the war. Knight flees the battlefield and returns home. Confederate soldiers have been looting local farmers for war supplies. Knight takes a militant stand. He is branded a deserter, then forced to flee into the swamps. He befriends a group of escaped slaves led by Moses (Mahershala Ali), and supplied by a kind house slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
As time passes, Knight grows the ranks with other white deserters and escaped slaves. Many of the whites don’t take kindly to hiding with slaves, but Knight brands them all equal. He sees the conflict as one between rich and poor. He’s never owned a slave. A man is free by the grace of God, and reaps what he sows. Knight’s insurrection gains strength, as does his relationship with Rachel.
There are two stories told in the film. Knight’s journey through the war and its aftermath runs parallel to the tale of his descendent in the 1950s. He (Brian Lee Franklin) discovers his black ancestry and is tried for miscegenation. The racial themes, economic disparity, and violence are viewed over time. The message being, that while slavery was abolished, the mindset and social inequality born from it still exists. The film takes a laser focus to these issues. What it lacks in eloquent delivery, it makes up for in brutal honesty. Scenes of lynchings, beatings, and racial terrorism are unflinching. For the youth of today, this history seems almost unimaginable. This is where Free State of Jones succeeds. It realistically depicts what life was like for the black and poor.
Matthew McConaughey is front and center for the entire film. Equal parts warrior, prophet, and preacher, he’s the guide through the racial morass. His acting is superb as always, but it needed to be less of a sermon. The strength of his character is never in question. Director Gary Ross goes overboard with Knight’s proselytizing. This is the unfortunate Hollywood treatment. Ross aims for serious drama, but pours it on when a lighter touch would have been more effective. Still, the effort is bold and with feeling. The importance of what’s being told is clearly understood.
Arriving from STX Entertainment, Free State of Jones is imperfect, but well intentioned enough to recommend. Issues of race, poverty, and reconciliation are difficult to portray. My take is that if it teaches you something you didn’t know before, then the filmmaking shortcomings aren’t entirely detrimental. The black experience as told through the eyes of a white character is trite at this point. That said, Free State of Jones is an admirable effort with an important message. The right to be free and have a say in society can never be taken for granted. Too many people in our history have paid a horrific price for it.