Overview: Newt Knight, a deserter from the Confederate Army, returns home and forms a small militia to fight back against the rebel government. STX Entertainment; 2016; Rated R; 139 minutes.
The Historical Figure: The recurring pattern of McConaughey’s white Newton Knight taking command of and saving the African American slaves has drawn quite a bit of criticism and does get tiring at points. Although it is historically accurate, and the bulk of the biopic rests on modern, progressive sensibilities, the film still makes the Civil War about its company-sized group of white men, as well as African Americans. It is not about race, Knight argues, because as long as one group of rich men are given free rein to manipulate any other group of people, socioeconomic equality and racial equality cannot exist. Sound familiar? Free State of Jones is fairly accomplished as a biopic, charting those pivotal few years during the Civil War and the Reconstruction period, as well as Knight’s legacy after the war and his great grandson’s attempts to marry a white woman as a man of 1/8th color. However, its success is primarily found in its ability to simply convey information. Despite the relative obscurity of the story of Newton Knight (the only other film to tell his story is 1948’s Tap Roots, which was only loosely adapted), it is surprising how many common, predictable beats the film hits. Admittedly, certain scenes rage with intensity – the initial battle sequence or some of the exchanges between Knight and Rachel, for example – and the themes are universal, but little otherwise separates this from a History Channel miniseries.
The Man Behind the Character: After a wave of critically acclaimed turns in 2013 and 2014, It feels like it’s been a relative while since Matthew McConaughey has made an appearance like he does in Free State of Jones. The non-release of The Sea of Trees seemed to have halted the McConaissance – or whatever his career resurgence was being dubbed by the media. Free State of Jones gives McConaughey a substantial amount of dialogue and adequate screen time, but it also might come a little too late to cash in on any earned pass from critical and commercial momentum. Nonetheless, his performance in Free State of Jones is quite good. Masked by a messy beard and a made-up visage, he is just recognizable enough, even if Knight does feel a lot like the characters McConaughey has played in the past. Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives an extremely powerful performance as Rachel, the slave who helps join the two separate races, bringing with her a lot of the emotional tension that the film needs.
The Man Behind the Camera: Structurally, Free State of Jones is a bit of a mess. Perhaps a better format would have done it some good; it carries itself like a very long movie cramped into a short running time or a really short movie that doesn’t know when to end. Time jumps with nothing but title cards carrying the year and the battle, with little context to set the stage. It manages to be quite interesting in its first hour and a half, but beyond that stretch it becomes a painful sit. The film’s climax is so separated from its credits that by the time the Reconstruction Era kicks in and the villains are replaced with montages of brutality against black people, the film has lost its momentum. Though, as a period piece, the film is convincing. The set design and costuming all feel accurate. The wardrobe of the disheveled, Robin Hood-esque band of outsiders contrasts with the pristineness of the antagonistic officers’ uniforms and reflects the spirit of the rebellion in juxtaposition to the Confederate elite.
Overall: Despite its flaws, one can’t help but find relevance in the film’s pleas for unity and equality, armed with a universality that extends beyond the Civil War and beyond the Civil Rights movement. It is a common and omnipresent theme in politics and in life itself and offers hope, or trust, in the promise that things will change in the future. Free State of Jones thrusts a fascinating and little known character into the spotlight, only occasionally living up to his name and actions.
Featured Image: STX Entertainment