Possible spoilers ahead!
Remember a couple of years ago when America’s favorite bongo player Matthew McConaughey was sporting a goofy beard and mustache? Well, it turns out he didn’t grow them because those car commercials made him mad. The facial hair was for the movie he was shooting at the time, and that movie is the now nearly forgotten “Free State of Jones.”
“Free State of Jones” is the true story of Newton Knight (played by McConaughey), a Mississippi farmer serving as a nurse in the Confederate army during the Civil War. As the war continues with no end in sight, Knight grows increasingly disillusioned with how the Confederacy caters only to the interests of wealthy Southerners by passing laws favoring families that own multiple slaves, while at the same time, forcing working-class people like himself to “donate” their food, livestock, and basically anything else they own for the Confederacy’s cause.
After his young nephew dies before him on the battlefield, Knight deserts his post, making himself a target for the Confederate army. With help from a local house slave named Rachel, (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), Knight finds refuge in the swamps of Jones County. Here he hides with a group of escaped slaves, including a man named Moses (Mahershala Ali), the two soon become friends, and they’re eventually joined by other Confederate army deserters, more runaway slaves, and other poor Southerners who have nowhere else to go.
As their numbers grow, Knight leads his new community in an armed rebellion against the Confederacy and declares their land the “Free State of Jones”.
The Civil War era was not my strongest subject when I was in school. Part of it had to do with the teacher I had, who made everything sound boring. So I was surprised when “Free State of Jones” made me interested in a Civil War story, and it was thanks to a solid cast.
Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight delivered another excellent performance. His character has the best arc in the film, going from lone rebel motivated by his own self-interests, to a community leader fighting for a cause that’s much much more important.
Meanwhile, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali as the onetime slaves Rachel and Moses, respectively, likewise delivered fine performances. What I like best about their characters is that they evolve from being survivalists to people who to take action on their own.
“Free State of Jones” is a solid historical drama that brings to light the controversial historical figure Newton Knight. But that’s not to say this is a perfect movie. The good news is that the film packs a lot of information about the war, and it also explores the realties of life in the Reconstruction-era South that other Civil War dramas tend to ignore most of the time.
However, I think director Gary Ross was aiming too high with “Free State of Jones.” Over its 2 hour 18 minute runtime, the movie covers Knight’s life from 1862 through to the late 1870s. That’s a lot of ground for any movie to cover, but Ross also uses a plot thread set in the mid-20th century, where one of Knight’s descendants is prosecuted by the state of Mississippi due to his racial heritage.
That story is important of course, and I understand why Gary Ross decided to include it in the movie. But the jumps from the Civil War era to the court case 85 years later are jarring. There’s no flow to the jumps, they come out of nowhere, and this is due to poor editing. In fact, the main issue I have with “”Free State of Jones”” is the editing. The movie moves slow and many sequences feel longer than they should. The editing also leaves several subplots under-developed, as the film tries to hit all the major “bullet points” of Knight’s life.
While “Free State of Jones” has several good elements, I’m afraid it was too much for a single movie to handle. The story is important and very interesting, but with so much ground to cover, Newton Knight’s story would have been better served by a TV mini-series than a single film.
“Free State of Jones” score: C+