Set during the Civil War, Free State of Jones 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. Written by
Story of a Southern Unionist rebellion and Reconstruction
I had read Prof. Bynum's excellent books about the Jones County rebellion and so had been looking forward to the movie. Though it, inevitably, changes the story (you'd need a dozen hours to tell it completely), it remains faithful to the spirit of the rebellion and the characters of Newton and Rachel Knight.
There were a number of Unionist uprisings in the South during the Civil War (a fact that was carefully expunged from my history textbooks, growing up in the South, maybe to justify all the monuments celebrating the glorious Olde South that lurk around public parks and buildings to intimidate black Southerners - I guess). What other purpose could they possibly serve? To celebrate a defeat?
This movie finally points out the obvious: the Confederacy lost the war, but the planter class which owned the Confederacy did their damnedest to win the peace. Instead of being lynched like Mussolini, Confederate leaders returned to their lives, their plantations, just like the war had never happened. Even the slaves they lost were returned to them in the form of unpaid sharecroppers. The misery of the lives of freedmen is one of the strongest images to take away from this film, their alleged freedom snatched from them. No 40 acres and a mule to serve as some form reparation, they went on to endure a century of domestic terrorism at the hand of the KKK.
The movie itself is beautifully and sensitively acted and filmed. There are scenes of great brutality but which are never gratuitous. There are also scenes of great beauty. There are scenes which have enormous relevance to politics in America today where racism is the hallmark of one Presidential candidate and income inequality the hallmark of another.
Claims by the radical left that this movie is about a "white savior" are just silly. If anything, Gary Ross has eliminated most of the real-life incidents which dealt with Newton Knight's own actions on behalf of freedmen, probably to make the film more palatable to the radical left who, like the extreme right-wing can never be satisfied anyway. I do wish the radical left, rather than criticizing well-intentioned liberals like Gary Ross, would attack the real enemy. The State of Mississippi still incorporates the Confederate flag in its state flag... and social justice warriors are quibbling about degrees of "white saviordom"?
Matthew McConaughey hasn't put a foot wrong since Lincoln Lawyer and his performance here is among his best work. American actors are rarely convincing playing period roles but he totally inhabits the role - scraggly beard, greasy hair, terrible teeth and attitude. He looks like the daguerrotype of a tired and desperate Civil War soldier. Gugu Mbatha-Raw has flown too long under the radar: stunningly touching as an early 19th century biracial heiress in Belle and totally believable as a pop star headed for a nervous breakdown in Beyond the Lights, she brings a luminous quality to Rachel a resourceful woman who defined her own path despite the oppression of racist Southern culture.
Mahershala Ali's character won't be found in Prof. Bynum's books. The names of the maroons who fought with the Knight Company have been lost to history, so he is a composite character invented by Gary Ross. His character travels from runaway slave to armed insurgent to voting rights activist in Reconstruction. Ali imbues his character with wit, charm, warmth and extraordinary courage.
Keri Russell is fine in a small role. She gives her heartbroken character dignity and resilience.
93 of 111 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?