FREE STATE OF JONES. Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, Mahershala Ali, and Brian Lee Franklin. Directed by Gary Ross. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong themes and violence).140 min.
This American epic-action drama film is based loosely on the life of Newton Knight, who led a rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi, during the American Civil War.
Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Southern God-fearing farmer, gathers together an army of runaway saves, fellow deserters, other farmers, and local slaves to rise up against the Confederacy. Disenchanted after serving as a field medic in the Confederate Army, Knight deserts and returns to his wife, Serena (Keri Russell). Back home he befriends a slave woman, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who saves his son, and whom he later marries. Among those who follow him, is Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), a fugitive slave, who was shackled by the Confederates to a spiked iron collar, and Knight risks death to save him from misery.
Knight's rebellion in South East Mississippi established the "Free State of Jones". His group expanded into an effective fighting force under his leadership, and the rebellion held its ground until the end of the Civil War. After the war, Knight continued to fight against racial inequality, and the film tracks the descendants of his son (by Rachel) to highlight racial discrimination in America some 80 years later. The film mostly covers a period of some 14 years from the Civil War in 1862 until 1876, and ends when the great grand-son of Newton and Rachel, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is charged, and convicted, in a Mississippi court in 1948 for marrying a white woman.
The film depicts a fascinating part of American Civil War history, and Matthew McConaughey's performance as Newton Knight brings passion to the role. There are historical inaccuracies in the movie - the so-called Free State of Jones was never free of racism to the degree the film makes out, and Knight himself was a historical figure of considerable controversy. The movie, however, is a measured, well-directed account of true events that takes a little licence in telling its story.
The battle scenes and treatment of slaves in the movie are brutal, cruel, and bloody, and the graphic nature of some of the violence overshadows the film's exploration of racial politics.The horror of war on the screen dwarfs the lessons that we can gather from Knight's fight for freedom, but the film gives a compelling account of an important insurrection. Knight's courageous fight against racial oppression, and the state of Unionism and Confederacy in Mississippi at the time of the Civil War are captured movingly, and the film very interestingly shows how the seeds of the Klu Klux Klan were grown in history.
The cinematography in the film is especially good, with dramatic and spectacularly staged scenes of Knight and his followers hiding in the watery swamp-lands of Jones County. Silhouettes and long-shots are used to great dramatic effect, and the acting is impressive. McConaughey captures emotion very well as Knight, and Mbatha-Raw brings a determined dignity to the role of Rachel.
This is an anti-war film, despite the violence we see on both sides, that depicts a historically significant revolt against discrimination, and the moral thrust of the movie supports racial equality unequivocally. Its story sweeps viewers across the Civil War, the Military Reconstruction period following it, and the 20th. Century civil rights movement. Throughout, the film paints Newton Knight as a person of undoubted rectitude. The film's script mixes idealism freely with sermonising, and the sweep of the story is weighed down a little by the complexity of the film's different subplots.
This movie presents an impressive cinematic vision of history. It shows passion, fire, and determination to great dramatic effect, even when history suggests things were not quite that way.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Studiocanal Pty. Ltd.
Released August 25th., 2016