For all of its gut-wrenching drama, powerful acting and stunning depictions of unspeakable brutality, but also chill-inducing moments of humanity in the South during and after the Civil War, for all of its reminders of where we’ve come from, how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go, “Free State of Jones” is a film destined for vocal blowback.
It’s a film about slavery and Reconstruction, set in Mississippi in the 1860s and 1870s – but a white man is front and center as the hero of the story. When Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight explains to a bigoted white man that all poor Southerners are essentially the n-word (and he uses the n-word), when he leads two dozen armed, singing black men into town in 1875 so they can cast ballots for the first time, it smacks of the “Crusading Caucasian” syndrome.
As author and history professor Kellie Carter Jackson says in an article in The New York Times: “If (the story) is really about Knight being an ally, then shouldn’t McConaughey be the supporting actor and not the lead?”
Also expect to hear criticism of the film’s somewhat sanitized depiction of Newton Knight as a charismatic, noble superhero of civil rights, with speechmaking abilities to rival those of Lincoln, and the unwavering compassion of a saint. (In what might be a first for a historical biopic, “Free State of Jones” comes with its own heavily annotated website, on which director Gary Ross footnotes about 35 scenes and topics of discussion from the movie.)
The truth, as is almost always the case with fictionalized biopics of historical figures, is much more complex. (Update Newton’s complete family history to modern times, and I’m not sure even the most salacious producer would turn it into a reality show. To say he and his descendants kept it all in the family would be a huge understatement.)
It would seem irresponsible to address an important film that focuses on race – the dominant issue in the history of this nation – without noting the aforementioned concerns, but our primary purpose here is to review the film Gary Ross has made, and not the film others might wish he had made. And while “Free State of Jones” is indeed a movie about slavery and race with a white man as the leading hero, and while it most certainly, shall we say, “streamlines” that man’s personal life, it is primarily an immensely gripping tale rooted in historical fact and filled with unforgettable images and, yes, lessons that ring hard and true a century and a half later.
“Free State of Jones” begins in 1862, with the Civil War in full bloody bore. (Ross’ camera doesn’t shy away from excruciating close-ups of spilled innards, severed limbs and faces turned into horror shows by gaping wounds.)
Already steaming about a new law exempting Confederate sons from military service depending on the number of slaves the family owns (for every 20 slaves, another son is sent home), Newton reaches the breaking point when his beloved young nephew lasts but a few hours in combat before a Union sniper takes the boy out.
Newton is taking his kin home. It’s as simple as that for him. Of course, that’s also known as desertion, and once Newton is back on his home turf in Mississippi, it’s a matter of time before Confederate soldiers are hunting him.
Wanted for treason and depending on the kindness of sympathetic slaves, Newton holes up with a small band of runaways, including Moses (Mahershala Ali).
Newton and his ragtag band outwit and outgun the Confederates, taking over a considerable portion of southeast Mississippi. (Newton declares his home county “the Free State of Jones.”)
At times, the speechifying in “Free State” stretches credulity. Is it possible Newton was even remotely this articulate?
This is no history lesson, but it’s mainstream Hollywood entertainment that respects the history and seems to invite discussion and debate.
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