Social History is Revitalized in ‘Free State of Jones’

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Average: 5 (1 vote) Oscarman rating: 4.0/5.0
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CHICAGO – The United States is still fighting the Civil War, which ended in 1865. The rebellious South has never completely given away its anger and sorrow for the changes the war has wrought on them. These larger themes are examined historically in the new film, “Free State of Jones.”

This is Matthew McConaughey at his finest, his performance as real history figure Newton Knight (that name could never be made up) is understated, subtle and respectful to the source. The direction by Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”) – who also adapted the screenplay – creates an authentic atmosphere and cogent overview. But mostly this film speaks again to the struggle of the African American race in the U.S., and how a people that were brought here in chains, have never really been unchained as equal citizens in this country. As much as it is a film about Newton Knight, it also resonates as a lesson that has implications in these hard times.

Newton Knight (McConaughey) is a Confederate Army medic in 1862. After a relative is killed in the Civil War under his watch, he deserts the Army and goes back to his Mississippi home, where his wife Serena (Keri Russell) awaits. Knight has a price on his head, as deserters are routinely hunted down, often using the same dogs that hunt runaway slaves.

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Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) Bears His Cross in ‘Free State of Jones’
Photo credit: STX Entertainment

Knight is forced to flee into the swamps, where the troops can’t get to him. He is aided by Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an intelligent house slave at a local plantation, and joins a group of runaway slaves in swamp exile – including the stoic and proud Moses (Mahershala Ali). Together, with other white army deserters, they build a new ‘State of Jones’ (county), and have to deal not only with the end of the war, but the difficult period of U.S. Reconstruction. 

I cannot recall if or when the Reconstruction period has been portrayed in a film (“Gone with the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation” don’t count), especially in the way that “Free State of Jones” chose to approach it. As a nation, we don’t acknowledge our own terrorist acts against the people we captured and brought here for free labor, and then afterward maligned and marginalized once they were “freed.” It is the American Holocaust, and “Free State of Jones” doesn’t turn away from that shame.

Matthew McConaughey gives one of the best performances of his career. His Newton Knight is a mass of moral righteousness, one that permeates every decision or rebellious act he participates in. He has no enemy except those who make others fight the war, while they continue to own human beings and reap the benefits and wealth through free labor. McConaughey doesn’t make Knight a zealot or wild-eyed, his performance flows through the man’s integrity and sense of justice.

The supporting cast is key to the authenticity that director Gary Ross puts into the whole film. Glamourous Keri Russell becomes a hardscrabble farmer’s wife – all the women in the film are hungry for both food and justice. Mahershala Ali as runaway-slave-turned-community-organizer Moses creates a forbearance that represents the striving African American race for the next 140 years. Even the enemy – represented by feckless Lt. Barbour (Bill Tangradi) – follow through crucially on their wrong side in history.

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Waiting for the Promised Land: Moses (Mahershala Ali) and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) in ‘Free State of Jones’
Photo credit: STX Entertainment

And all the while there is Gary Ross, in both his direction and story telling, relating this tale deliberately, much as he did in “Seabiscuit.” In this film, the deliberateness slows the story down in the first half, but his back story efficiency allows for a deeper understanding of Newton Knight. The ending is somewhat abrupt, no doubt ordered by another edit – the film clocks in at 2-hours-19-minutes, yet the overall cinematic experience is morally intuitive. Ross uses the Bible to emphasize the nature of the challenge Knight faces, in both hypocrisy and glory. When the ultimate freedom is death, then for sure these people clung to their faith.

In the last two weeks, the U.S. has experienced the greatest mass shooting in our nation’s history, perpetuated against a marginalized population (gay and Latino Americans), and one week later Mississippi – the setting for the “Free State of Jones” – passes a law that allows business owners to discriminate against those same gay citizens. The temptation is to say that “everything old is new again,” but more appropriately the phrase is, “and the ‘beat’(down) goes on.”

”Free State of Jones” opens everywhere on June 24th. Featuring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, Mahershala Ali and Bill Tangrad. Screenplay adapted and directed by Gary Ross. Rated “R” senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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