HOLLYWOOD—Director Gary Ross’ “Free State of Jones” is a tremendous film. Beautifully acted and shot, it is far more than a simple war story. It tells the tale of America; our triumphs, heroisms, hypocrisies, and brutalities. It’s a needed contribution to our ongoing discussions about history and race, and it is brilliant in that it shows with amazing clarity how the far reaching dark sides of American history effect the individuals caught up in it.
The story centers on Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey). The opening shows him serving as a Confederate Ambulance Corps stretcher bearer at the Second Battle of Corinth. We see this disillusioned man eventually desert the army, make his way home to Jones County, Mississippi. Facing execution he heads into the local swamps where he joins a group of escaped slaves including Moses (Mahershala Ali). He is helped along the way by Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an enslaved healer who longs to learn to read. All the while the Confederate Army is pillaging small, local farms in order to sustain itself. Knight, now joined by an increasing number of supporters both black and white, starts revolting against the local Confederate authorities.
Credit must be given to the major casting decisions. McConaughey is fantastic as Knight. It would have been easy to play him as just a tuff, gun slinging warrior. No doubt he is that, but McConaughey gives him complexity. We see how deeply he’s effected the deaths of those around him. Every major one in the film is a palpable tragedy, and it is through McConaughey’s superb delivery that the audience is made to feel it.
Mbatha-Raw has to be considered one of the great talents in the film industry right now. She brings so much emotion to every scene she’s in. In one scene, we see her spying on her master’s children’s reading lesson. The camera zooms in on her lips as she follows along. The attempt to rob one of the dignity of knowledge and agency through forced illiteracy is made all the more real for the audience by the subtle power of Mbatha-Raw’s performance.
Rachel is a victim of slavery, rape, and a multitude of other brutalities and indignities. Like McConaughey’s Knight, Mbatha-Raw endows Rachel with both vulnerability and strength. She not only yearns to learn to read but also to shoot. She fights bravely in the movies climactic battle scenes, and is a source of strength for Knight throughout the film. Both the script and Mbatha-Raw’s acting make her an empowered female lead, and that elevates the film.
It’s not without its flaws though. Sometimes a scene lingers a bit. Mahershala Ali is excellent as Moses. His fear and anger palpable at all the right moments. I just wish I could have seen more of him. This goes for Mbatha-Raw to. She has good chemistry with McConaughey. The problem is their romance is in the background too much. An added love scene wouldn’t have hurt.
The villains are another problem. Col. Elias Hood (Thomas Francis Murray) and Lt. Barbour (Bill Tangradi) feel more like bigoted, aggravating oafs than menacing villains. The villainous plantation owner James Eakins (Joe Chrest) shows up too little for the character to have any weight as a bad guy. Yes, the scenes he is in are horrifying, but they are too few and far between. Perhaps this is all undermined though. I get the feeling the real villain here is the historical era itself.
Ross’ decision not to shy away from any of that historical era’s brutality is a smart one. I’m a pretty cynical dude. I’ve seen a lot of brutal scenes in movies. There’s a depiction of a lynching in this one that’s the most shocking since “Mississippi Burning.” It made me audibly gasp. The last time I remember being that stunned by something on screen was the first time I saw the beach landing scene in “Saving Private Ryan.” This isn’t a negative. If a film is to do history any justice it needs to show it in all its horror, and does this one ever. There is absolutely no romanticism to be had here.
“He died with honor,” Will (Sean Bridgers) says to Knight about a family member who has just died at the Battle of Corinth. “No Will, he just died,” Knight replies.
The film rejects the nobility of dying for a cause simply because it is your cause. There is little if any pro-Confederate moral equivalency to be had here. One side is clearly in the right.
Don’t think it’s all a downer though. An early scene showing Knight and his runaway slave companions ambushing slave catchers had the rousing effect of Jaime Fox shooting up a plantation in “Django Unchained,” or Sidney Poitier’s slap in “In the Heat of the Night.” You can really root for the main characters. Vulnerable and oppressed, sure, but strong and fighting for a righteous cause, you better believe it.
The film’s connection to others about historical dramas can’t be missed. It contrasts the South’s natural beauty against the horrors of slavery in a manner similar to the aforementioned “12 Years a Slave.” The fact that Knight is launching a guerilla insurgency from a swamp in the South is similar to “The Patriot,” and the irony can’t be lost that this time we are seeing the war that the founding generation contributed to with its inability to end slavery at the nation’s birth. Some of the scenes in the swamp gathered around the fire, the savage opening battle scene at Corinth that features a gruesome march on a fixed position, and a rending scene in a field hospital are highly reminiscent of “Glory.”
What truly sets the film apart though is the fact it delves into Reconstruction. This era in American history is so important and so under-addressed in cinema. Keeping the focus on the harsh realities of the time like the klan, lynchings, and voter suppression gives the audience no catharsis, nor should it. The fact that the film reaches forward to Knight’s descendant in the middle of the 20th century hammers home the fact that all the historical events we have seen transpire affect us well into the present.
It should be noted that the movie avoids a trap when talking about Reconstruction. We see that many whites and former slaves fought alongside Knight during the war. It’s made clear that there are class reasons for the white people’s participation. There is great resentment among the poor, white farmers over having to seemingly fight a war solely on behalf of the plantation class, and therefore they find common cause with former slaves. When the war ends most of the white character’s feelings of solidarity evaporate. The failures of Reconstruction and the inability of the government to capitalize on the Union Victory to ensure racial equality are all encapsulated here. We tend to think that in both history and cinema victory on the battlefield means all is well. We are shown this is not so.
There’s also this kind of meta reflection on our relationship with history itself. The film uses subtitles to give the viewer historical information, and the black and white photos of the era that are interjected every so often remind one of documentarian Ken Burns’ “The Civil War.” The contrast between this and the characters we have come to bond with on screen remind us that history is not a dry, meaningless story in a classroom or book. It is a real and often terrible experience for the people that lived through it.
A scene showing the Knight and his supporters taking down the Confederate flag and raising the stars and stripes is obviously connected to recent controversies about the rebel banner. There are a lot of connections to recent political skirmishes, and the film takes a deep and meaningful look at them. It asks us to reject any notion of a glorious, morally equivalent, or sympathetic old South. It’s the anti “Gone with the Wind” or “Gods and Generals.” It asks us to accept the ugly parts of our history staring us in the face, be like Knight, Rachel, and their companions, and fight to right the injustices of history. What a great film it is.