Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones isn’t a Civil War action movie, as its trailer might suggest, but bio-pic by way of a history lesson. The film’s focus is Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who led an armed insurrection against the Confederate Army in Jones County, Miss.
It opens in 1862, with the war in full swing, and Knight, a soldier medic, dragging mangled bodies from the battlefield to a tent. He’s fed up with the war, which he sees as using poor farmers like himself to defend the economic rights of wealthy landowners.
Knight deserts, escapes to the swamp and joins a group of runaway slaves. As the war gets worse, they are joined by other slaves, deserters and assorted aggrieved citizens. In time, Knight marshals the ragtag group to fight back, eventually routing the Confederate Army from the town and setting the place up as a independent “free state.”
Fighting weary Confederate soldiers might have been the easy part — the mixed-race group’s bigger travails come after the war, with the messiness of Reconstruction: emancipation, issues of sovereignty, individuals’ rights, voter intimidation, the return of power to the landed folks, the rise of the KKK-type groups — and well, still being dirt-ass poor in rural Mississippi.
The film tries to cover a lot. When about the 10th historical thread opened up (one set in the 1950s!), I was thinking: This would fare better as a mini-series. And with some thought, it could be a smart one, examining some of the roots of cultural, racial and socio-economic tensions we’re still sorting out today.
More time could also solve the film’s other problem: its focus on Knight, which, combined with McConaughey’s earnest performance, gives Free State a “white savior” vibe. There are a lot of characters in this film, but they are mostly minor and presented only in their relationship to Knight; this is not an ensemble piece about people working collectively, but a portrait of that group’s de facto leader.
As it is, Free State is mostly a sobering drama that doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of war, slavery, race-based terrorism and other assorted miseries that disenfranchised folks have to put up with. Its tacit approval of populism defended through armed uprising against the state is provocative and a timely discussion topic. That is, for viewers who have two-and-half-hours to carve out for a “summer” film that revisits one of America’s grimmest periods.
And speaking of grimness and grime, here’s a hat-tip to the costume designer who took the extra effort to render all the clothing appropriately dirty, frayed, patched and haphazardly assembled. These are poor people during war time, after all — nobody’s popping down to the general store for a fresh waistcoat.