July 1, 2016 7:06:31 pm
Newton Knight was part of a little-known chapter in American Civil War, leading a disjointed army of deserters, slaves and farmers, in rebellion against the Confederate Army. Always on the sidelines, he fought not just for the right of every man to decide his destiny but also was part of the difficult reconstruction after the battle had been won but the war for uniting the nation still lay ahead.
In that sense, Free State of Jones couldn’t have come at a better time, and the film does well to juxtapose telling of Knight’s story with the trial his mixed-race descendant is fighting in the same state “85 years later”. Nobody says so much as “Black lives matter” in the film, but “every life matters” is an underlying theme.
And yet, Free State of Jones does such an underwhelming job of it — more interested in setting up episodes and eye-catching montages than placing them within the larger narrative of what these meant in a country in war with itself over its right to see a class of citizens as inferior. A large part of the film, for example, happens in a watery swamp, where an amazing number of people live in a musical, dippy, happy commune.
Placing McConaughey at the centre of each such episode doesn’t help, though the actor again dips into that pool of intensity that has been his hallmark recently. Not only does this near saintly portrayal of Knight in what were not just physically but morally difficult times ring false, it is also untrue as per nearly all historical accounts.
There is barely one episode where the motley army that Knight puts together questions his changing goalposts — these southern gentlemen couldn’t have all viewed their negroes as graciously as Knight would have us believe — but it’s brushed under. So what started out as men and importantly women defying Confederate soldiers for robbing their farms and houses to take away food and belongings in the name of feeding and clothing their army, expands into fighting its soldiers head-on, and then into co-opting the freed or runaway slaves without any major disagreements. At the height of their battle, Knight declares a ‘Free State of Jones’, in a region that encompasses his native Jones Country.
The film takes as rosy a view of Knight’s relationship with his two women, his white wife Serena (Russell) and the slave who cares for him and who he comes to live with, Rachel (Mbatha-Raw). All three of them nd their children live together in perfect harmony, again in contradiction of what is known.
The negro with any authority in the film is the self-named Moses. A dignified Ali, who plays him, holds his own against McConaughey.
Yes, Knight’s was a story waiting to be told. But Free State of Jones doesn’t seem as free as it could have.
Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell
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