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On the surface, Free State of Jones, looks to be just another Civil War epic with a “white savior” leading the charge. You have a group of oppressed people who are powerless against the established forces that be and then you have a lone hero, who once fought alongside the oppressors, only to turn and fight for the little people who don’t have their own power to inspire the kind of change a white hero can. Their struggle becomes the white hero’s struggle, which conveys the notion that things don’t happen, nothing changes unless the white man comes to save you. If you caught any trailer on this little known, fact-based true story, you might have had similar thoughts. While there are a couple instances where that could be read into this film, that isn’t really what this film is. In fact, you’d really be wrong in thinking this film was like anything you had seen before. You would also be missing a huge piece of the movie and the larger story it tells of a man who was progressive and way ahead of his time. This film is about a bunch of rebels who gave the all-powerful Confederacy a real run for their money.
Free State of Jones is at its core, about conviction and values in the face of massive, dangerously impossible odds. McConaughey’s Newton Knight, (sounds like a strong heroic name), begins this tale as an orderly, tending to the wounded soldiers of the Confederacy. He is already fed up with the war, blood and death he feels has nothing to do with him, but when tragedy hits home, he abandons the Confederacy and the whole conflict altogether in order to get back home to his family and his farm. Unfortunately, conflict comes back to him in a big way when he finds himself on the run after helping protect neighbors from the advances of Confederate soldiers who move from farm to farm taking the resources by force, resulting in the families struggling to survive.
Within this film’s overarching tale, there are little stories of each character. This is all fine and dandy. It adds a richness to the proceedings. What is a bit problematic though is that there is one such “small” story in the film which deals with a descendant of Newton Knight and former slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The great grandson of Newton, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) has been charged with miscegenation and is on trial for marrying a white woman. It is an interesting diversion and one that frankly would’ve been better suited as its own story self-contained story. As is, it takes away from the urgency of Newton’s story. Davis Knight’s tale might have been a nice companion piece, a great short film or something else. Director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) gives the Davis Knight bits of the film the same amount of respect devoted to the rest of the film, but it deserves more attention than it gets. Unfortunately it ultimately bogs down the core story.
If you happen to be in the market for a monologue or several, Free State of Jones has what you need. Matthew McConaughey sinks his teeth into the meat of the role, expertly delivering the heat and reminding everyone why he is leading this movie. His natural southern drawl is perfectly exaggerated for the time period and feels every bit as authentic as it should. The other standout is Mahershala Ali, who plays Moses, a former slave who fights alongside Newton. He is a compelling character with an equally compelling story. Ali provides perhaps the most solid support of anyone else in the film, he is undoubtedly the other anchor of the conflict. Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s Rachel has a fair amount to manage as a slave who leads a double-life serving her white masters, but who also aids the small group of rebels along the way. There are some strong emotional moments she allows us to witness, it was a shame to not see more of her.
The remarkable thing about Free State of Jones is that Newton Knight became leader of a community of people who were treated as equals. Male, female, black or white. “If you walk on two legs, you’re a man,” Knight speaks to his followers following a crucial battle against the Confederacy. Fairness, justice and equality, everything Newton Knight stood and fought for can be summed up by those words. The other remarkable thing, whether this was true or not, was the fact that women also fought alongside the men against the Confederate soldiers. There wasn’t too much of that shown, but what a sight it was to see the women of that time boldly carrying guns and using them in an all out shoot-out. The people of Knight’s newly formed free state of Jones, helped each other, fought beside one another and died together. They were really a tight group and the film does a good job of depicting this. It also does an admirable job of depicting any tensions within the group. Even though they were winning battles, there were constant threats to their survival and every so often, the Confederacy made good on those threats.
Newton Knight lived a full, rich and long life, well into his 80’s. For the time, it’s a wonder he was never killed for all the feathers he ruffled during his life. Any amount of research you do on the man will show you that there are varying opinions of him and what his legacy is today. Some in the south still can’t forgive him for willingly taking a former slave as a wife and cohabiting with her and their children as a family. Others believe he was a traitor to the Confederacy. Then you have those who take pride in the decisions Knight made and who also stand behind the convictions and values for which he fought and lived by. There are those who are excited for this movie. It is a chance for a tale that, for all the effort that went into trying to bury the truth of it, now has the space to be told in a more or less honest way.