You say you want a revolution, y’all? No? Then how about a rebellion? That’s what you get in “Free State of Jones,” a historical drama based on Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a farmer who rebels against the Rebels. Oh, the irony.
The main problem with the film is that it’s long on history and short on drama. Just because a film is historically accurate doesn’t mean it’s dramatically vibrant.
And as for that historical accuracy, historians may have a bone or two to pick with director Gary Ross’ script. For instance, Knight starts a romantic relationship with a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), whose master James Eakins (Joe Chrest) rapes her and whips her when she resists. In reality, Rachel’s master was Knight’s grandfather. Awkward.
The film opens in 1862 during the battle of Corinth where Ross doesn’t shy away from depicting the war’s stomach-churning violence. Confederate soldiers march over corpses and up a hill where they confront a phalanx of Union soldiers, who gun them down in what looks like target practice. Some soldiers literally get their brains blown out. We first meet Knight taking a wounded soldier to a medical tent where sawed-off limbs appear de rigueur. These scenes are not for the squeamish.
Fed up with fighting a war where southerners who own 20 slaves or more receive exemption from conscription, Knight deserts and forms a militia consisting of fellow deserters and runaway slaves. They begin by taking back goods commandeered by the Confederacy and exact justice when injustice occurs.
The militia eventually grows in numbers, moving from the swamps to Ellisville in Jones County, Mississippi, where Knight declares the Free State of Jones. Knight’s hopes of a utopia where all men get treated as equals soon get dashed once the Civil War ends in 1865 and Reconstruction begins. Emancipation may mean freedom from slavery but not from deep-seeded prejudice and widespread oppression as scenes of marauding Klansmen painfully illustrate.
To continue on the bigotry front, Ross interrupts Knight’s story to flash forward 85 years to a trial where his great-grandson Davis (Brian Lee Franklin) is charged with miscegenation when he attempts to marry a white woman. The state believes Davis has black roots, stemming from Newton’s relationship with Rachel.
Ross may be accused of piling on here — how many examples of prejudice do we need in the film, and how many people don’t know that prejudice existed in the South? More importantly, from a cinematic standpoint, this narrative device disrupts what passes for action in the film.
“Free State of Jones” is also likely going to face criticism as yet another “white savior” tale as the only blacks who receive any prominence are Rachel and the slave Moses (Mahershala Ali).
McConaughey tries his best to inject some emotion into Knight, but it’s a losing battle. The character comes off as too saintly with righteous indignation his prevailing sentiment.
His wife Serena (Keri Russell) disappears from the story once the militia gets formed only to return to see Newton in love with a slave. Might there have been some tension in this scenario?
If there were, we don’t see it, and if there weren’t, it’s hard to believe.
Mbatha-Raw and Ali manage to lend a sense of dignity to roles that should have received more attention and dimension.
The film is probably not going to receive many accolades from neo-Confederates either as all the officers are portrayed as southern-fried pond scum. Talk about stacking the deck.
The cinematography by Benoit Delhomme at least is a plus with Louisiana substituting for Mississippi. Love the swamp scenes. For trivia buffs, Knight’s story was filmed before in 1948’s “Tap Roots.”
“Free State of Jones” is one of those movies with good intentions hampered by less-than-stellar execution. It does educate. It just doesn’t fascinate, and with a running time of 2 hours and 19 minutes, it will test the patience of audience members who want more than a history lesson in their movies.
“Free State of Jones” is 2 hours and 19 minutes long and rated R for brutal battles scenes and disturbing graphic images. It is written and directed by Gary Ross, whose credits include “Seabiscuit” and “The Hunger Games.” The film stars Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali.