Written by: Gary Ross
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell
Machinations of whiteness historically have led the drive of turning individuals arguably in the same economic class against each other. A way to deflect blame from those at the top and having racism take over. Free State of Jones chronicles a time during America’s most divided moment to demonstrate the power of racial unity when a group focuses on the true evil making the world a worse place.
Serving as a medic for the Confederate Army, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) gets disillusioned by the war effort and flees after witnessing gruesome deaths. On the run from the deserter-hunters, he finds a group of escaped slaves and they gather together to form a free state in Mississippi not beholden to the whims of the Confederacy.
Small slices of history provide incredible context of an era not so black-and-white. The root cause for the Civil War in the United States will forever be slavery, but not everyone on each side necessarily agreed with the viewpoint based strictly on their geographical location. Surely, there were individuals living in the Union states sympathetic to the idea of slavery just as there were abolitionists living in the Confederate ones. Shining a light on the dissenters, even the minor ones, gives a fuller picture of what occurred during this era and despite the overly-elongated runtime of this particular feature, it carries plenty of merit.
Despite fighting for “states’ rights,” the Confederate Army had no problem taking away from the individuals within their states. They would tax people simply by taking their crops thus leaving parents without food to feed their children. All of this occurred in the name of the war effort. Knight along with others attempted to stand their ground in the midst of power-drunk enforcers and their efforts to defect from these soldiers proved to be quite the underdog story, thus becoming the heartbeat of this movie overall. With Newtown serving as the figurehead of it all, any opportunity where he gets caught would ultimately end in an execution through hanging. A scary proposition for him, but it’s no worse than the Black folks who could be lynched just because of white folks getting bored and needing some sort of entertainment.
The constant looming danger in every action led by Newton provides the framework of how careful he and his group need to be. Any situation where they confront their hunters must end with rifles, seeing as imminent death reaches them if captured. This leaves a level of tension constantly brewing where each strategic move could be their last and seeing as the events taking place in this film are not widely known, most audience members head into this story unaware of what can actually occur. As with most films taking place in Confederate times in the South, there will be blood-boiling moments reminding you of the vast injustices taken for granted even today. The entire idea of Black folks fighting for their own freedom and then battling simply to vote straight after sends the stark reminder of how long after the slaves were “freed” that conditions barely changed for them.
Even with everything this story gets right in respect to the history, the way it gets captured comes across as fairly pedestrian. Free State of Jones lacks flair in its directorial style and any sort of dynamism overall. Middling cinematography certainly does not help the cause, thus leaving the intrigue in historical significance to do all of the heavy lifting for the feature. Even with strong performances from the cast, everything looks fairly drab, which is certainly an intentional choice but for a feature telling such an important story, it lacks the overall look and feel of its epicness. The runtime certainly does not do it many favors where several scenes just come across as far too bloated for the good of the story.
With its bevy of issues to work through, Free State of Jones carries a level of historical significance that kept my engagement even when the storytelling did it no favors whatsoever. Trying to decipher this story does not differentiate much from other stories taking place in the same era but the content of the material did all of the heavy lifting. The way it restructures the idea of class in relation to racism in the Confederate South more than makes up for where it lacks in others and overall should be watched by those with an interest in history as it shines a light on the smaller significant battles occurring within a much larger war.