FREE STATE OF JONES Author: JoAnne Hyde
Date: June 24, 2016
SYNOPSIS: Directed by four-time Oscar nominee Gary Ross and starring Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, FREE STATE OF JONES is an epic action-drama set during the Civil War, and tells the story of defiant Southern farmer, Newt Knight, and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy. Banding together with other small farmers and local slaves, Knight launched an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones. Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, distinguishing him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance long beyond the War.
Free State of Jones is a sweeping, exceedingly well-done piece of historical fiction. Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, leader of a group of southern unionists who waged guerilla-style warfare against Confederate troops during the Civil War. Knight, who became legendary, is regarded by historians as either a pious, noble man who stood up for his beliefs, or a manipulative outlaw. This film chooses to portray him in the pious, noble light.
In researching the real Newton Knight, I found that the film accurately presents some of the events of his life while taking liberty with others. For example, Knight had 9 children with his wife Serena (Kerri Russell) in real life, but in the film they have only 1. The same is true of his second wife, freed slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). In real life, she bore 9 or 10 children with previous masters; her final 4 were by Newton. In the film, they also have only 1 and she has no previous children.
Newton’s desertion from the Confederate Army and subsequent forming of his Company consisting of other deserters and run-away slaves is well-documented. His relatives and other Civil War figures certainly existed, but the slaves, with the exception of Rachel, are most likely fictional. When Newton is on the run from the Confederates, he is first aided by tavern owner Aunt Sally (Jill Jane Clements) and her slave George (Troy Hogan).
George guides Newton deep into a swamp where a small band of escaped slaves is hiding. Their leader Moses (Mahershalia Ali) teaches Newton how to survive in the swamp and becomes his right-hand man. As more men desert from the Confederate Army, Newton recruits them. Historically accurate is the fact that not all of the men were in agreement with Knight, but they had no other place to hide. Pivotal in the decision to desert for many of them was the Confederate Government’s “20 Negro Rule.” Owners of 20 or more slaves received a deferment from military service, with additional deferments granted for every 20 additional slaves. This changed the tenor of the war into a “poor man’s fight in a rich man’s war.”
Newton Knight’s role in the Period of Reconstruction continues after the war ends in the film, and some of the uglier aspects of the post-war period, such as the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, add gravitas to the story. In the film, Knight continues to fight for the rights of freed slaves providing some of the more affecting scenes in the film.
Interspersed among the war and post-war scenes are flash forwards, to 85 years later, when Newton Knight’s great –grandson, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), is on trial for miscegenation. As a descendant of Knight, it could be argued that he possessed 1/8 Negro blood which would make it illegal for him to be married to a white woman in Mississippi at that time. That law would not be overturned until Loving v Virginia in 1967. The trial scenes highlight the absurdity of the law in the first place and continue the condemnation of racism that dominates the plot of the film.
Free State of Jones is a powerful film that, I predict, will inspire a wide range of emotions in its viewers. It’s impossible to view the film and not relate it to the current divisive state of American politics. The seeds of racism are deeply rooted in the history of our country, and some viewers may be uncomfortable with this fact.
The film’s strength lies in the realistic portrayal of scenes of war and post-war brutality. Yes, violence and suffering are key to the story, but none of it is presented in a sensational manner. The story never feels manipulative, even during the most brutal scenes. All of the actors do outstanding jobs with their characters, but Matthew McConaughey’s strong- but- understated performance sets the tone of the story. His performance can be defined by what the real Newton Knight said : “ if they had a right to conscript me when I didn’t want to fight the Union, I had a right to quit when I got ready.”
Free State of Jones is long at 2 hours 19 minutes, but I can’t think of any part of it I would cut. Director Gary Ross attacks a complex and emotionally charged subject with a direct and authentic approach. I left the theater inspired to learn more about the historical facts of the story, and I believe that the “real” story was effectively conveyed. This film offers an award-worthy viewing experience. - JoAnne Hyde