Free State of Jones (2016)
Well meaning and somberly recreated, Free State of Jones is a historical drama that wants to illuminate the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) who deserted from the Confederate army and seceded from the very people who seceded from the United States. Knight and the people of Jones county Mississippi declared themselves independent and awaited the consequences. At first the Confederate army is annoyed, but as armed skirmishes increase and Knight’s team swells with poor farmers and runaway slaves, garnering Robin Hood-esque folk hero status, you’re expecting an escalating level of force that will doom Newton. We’ve seen this kind of historical drama before where men (usually men) of courage and politics ahead of their time are stamped out by the forces of oppression and we then celebrate their noble sacrifice. I kept waiting for Jones to go this route, and then (slight historical spoilers) the Civil War ends and instead the last half hour is an episodic history tour that includes the rise of the KKK, registering freed black men for voting, and early voter suppression acts. There is also a storyline strewn throughout that takes place in a 1940s Mississippi courtroom. At first you’re left scratching your head about the flash forwards, and then the connections come to bear. We’re watching Knight’s (great?) grandson and his legal troubles because the courts don’t know whether he’s the byproduct of Newton’s first wife (Kerri Russell), who left him, or his common law second wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a former slave. It’s a storyline that just doesn’t really gel with the movie as a whole and really only serves to remind you that 100 years later Mississippi was still a pretty terrible place to live. Free State of Jones’ failure is that it doesn’t make this slice of history emotionally engaging. We don’t get a strong sense of whom Newton is as a person except for his 99% rabble rousing. His relationship with Mbatha-Raw’s character is the most engaging part of the film given its inherent conflict, and I’ll credit writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) with how restrained he is about dealing with her sexual abuse from slavery. The relationship is treated very tenderly and Mbatha-Raw aces her scenes. Also warning to dog lovers: there are several sequences of violence against man’s best friend that will be hard to watch. Free State of Jones works better as a history lesson rather than as a fully formed movie.
Nate’s Grade: C+