People who don’t study history tend to get a very shallow understanding of how events actually transpired. For example, did the United States just magically spring into existence the day that the Declaration of Independence was signed? Did slavery end the day that President Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation? No, in either case. History is considerably more messy and people who don’t support change can drag their heels for years – or decades – after a decision has been made, whether democratic or through royal fiat.
The Civil War was very much a similar moment in history, where slave-owning Southerners fought their Northern brethren and fellow Americans after having seceded en masse from the Union. Ask a typical 20-something and they’ll tell you that it was Union versus Confederate and that the Union won and the United States reunited. Issues resolved, and a happy ending for the North and everyone against slavery.
But the Civil War was much sloppier, much more of a painful split and reunification than that synopsis suggests, and many Southerners resisted the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment, coming up with one obstacle after another and even creating an organized hate group called the Ku Klux Klan that used terror to reject unwanted change.
Free State of Jones is about this era of history and is centered on the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a white man who deserted his post in the Confederate army and created a pocket of resistance, a rag-tag army of escaped slaves and other deserters who ended up holding down much of southeast Mississippi in the height of the Civil War. He befriends and eventually marries freed slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and becomes close friends with former slave and black organizer Moses (Mahershala Ali).
Knight leads his ever-growing army from their base in the swamps (where Confederate troops can’t reach them on horseback) and tries to garner help from the North with little success, though Sherman does send 100 rifles to the rebels. “We’re fighting their war. Here. Now.” he insists, but without success. Based around Jones County, near Soso Mississippi, he renames the region the titular Free State of Jones and the film veers towards a weirdly Robin Hood-esque story where Knight and his merry band steal from the evil Confederate tax collectors and give back to the poor. It was a surprise there wasn’t an archery tournament in the midst of this section of the film.
Then the war ends, the Confederates surrendered, but as the film explores in its most powerful storyline, that was really the beginning of the war of integration and acceptance for the freed slaves, and it wasn’t more than a few years later that most of them were toiling away just as hard for just as little benefit under indentured servitude or simply because they couldn’t get any other jobs in town. Moses tirelessly works to register these newly free slaves so they can vote, but most of the residents of Soso, MI were perfectly happy the way things were before and actively block every possible step forward.
In a particularly gripping scene, a group of black voters walk into the local courthouse to vote, with Knight in the lead, through a gauntlet of hostile whites, all of whom have pistols on their belts or rifles in their hands. “We’ve come to vote. Where are the Republican ballots?” he says, just to meet a shrug from the election manager. “Seems we didn’t get no republican ballots. y’all can wait around, but it might be a while…” to general guffaws from the other men in the room. But Knight convinces him to “find” those ballots ,and we see 20-25 men vote Republican, just to have a superimposed title share that the final tally from that particular election counted two Republican votes. Not a dozen, not twenty, not every man in the room. Two.
Free State of Jones is a powerful movie, but it’s lost in its cliches and trite story elements. There’s also a completely incomprehensible courtroom drama that takes place 80 years later and revolves around whether a descendant of Newton Knight is legally black because he’s 1/8th black or not. Why that was even in the movie is a mystery, it’s jarring and adds nothing to the story or narrative, seeming more like left-over To Kill a Mockingbird footage.
The film also suffers from an overly simplistic tone. Every slave, every black man or woman is upstanding, honorable and always does the right thing, while every white man is immoral and hostile, casually threatening to kill others, hurt children and, in one ghastly scene (thankfully off camera) torture and murder one of the main characters. Except for Newton Knight, however, he’s even more of a paragon of virtue with never a harsh word, never a decision that isn’t idealized. And that weakens the film, because in addition to history being sloppy and far slower to resolve than it seems from history books, people are also not so easily categorized as good or bad.
The post-war period of the film was by far the best and most powerful and I wish director Gary Ross would have spent more time on reminding us of the extraordinary bravery of the men and women who fought for change in the South and a lot less time on the Civil War era itself. And the courtroom question of racial heritage? Completely out of place and should have been cut.
Nonetheless, Free State of Jones is a powerful and very well produced film and one I recommend, even with its R rating for some violence and graphic scenes, including some that will upset animal lovers. Momentum makes it extraordinarily difficult to change beliefs and actions, even when it’s wrong, and Free State of Jones ultimately reminds us of that in a very visceral manner.