I’m back! My apologies for not posting recently. I have been posting some of my movie reviews at an U.K. website http://www.culturedVultures.com but this movie, Free State of Jones is about the American Civil War from the Confederate side. I decided to publish it here.
There’s so much good in Free State of Jones that I’m going to start with the bad that drags it down.
It’s a very static film. By the end of 2 plus hours, you ask, “Great history lesson but couldn’t you make it a bit more exciting?”
Free State of Jones is based in American history. During the Civil War, the southern Confederate States fought the Union northerners, starting in 1861 and ending in 1865.
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a stretcher bearer on the Confederate side who rescues the dying, taking them to the overwhelmed hospital. The first ten minutes of the film is harrowing since doctors are sawing off limbs and bloodied bandages are rewashed for the next day’s set of casualties.
Knight finds that a young relative has been conscripted off the family farm in Jones, Mississippi and decides he has to leave, that the slaughter is wrong. The next day’s fighting kills the boy. Knight, disgusted by the carnage, ties the body to a mule and deserts, walking back to his home.
Here is where history lesson enters the picture.
Most Civil War reading is about the battles. The suffering of the southern civilians is mentioned as part of Union Major General Sherman’s to Atlanta in 1864.
The story Free State tells is that of the Confederate homefront, where to feed the army with food and more men, the Confederacy raids small farms and homes.
Knight protects a woman on a neighboring when the Confederates come to take their hogs and corn that would have fed the family through the winter. The officers send slave hunters with dogs to find him as a deserter.
He finds safety in the Mississippi swamps with escaped blacks, and it is from this, the story builds into how Knight, with the help of fellow deserters and the blacks, creates a ‘free state’ in Jones County in the face of the Confederacy.
The story continues after the war’s end of 1865 when the plantation owners and Confederate soldiers return – all having now sworn ‘loyalty to the Union’ – through Reconstruction, the depredations of the rising Ku Klux Klan and the lynching of blacks. Newton’s wife returns to find he has another woman/wife, Rachel, who is black. Both women live peaceably together.
To add some complication to the film is a secondary story based in the 1940’s about David Knight, Newton’s descendent. Under the laws of Mississippi with one-eighth black blood, since he’s a descendent of Rachel and Newton, he is tried and convicted on the charge of marrying a white woman. He was released when his appeal might overturn the law against miscegenation. Unfortunately this story is confusing to the main story of Newton Knight.
The movie’s action comes in spurts. Most of the movie is McConaughey looking determined (and doing it superbly. He’s got Knight down pat.) So much of the action happens off-stage. Even the scene where the (maybe) Klan comes for Knight’s home isn’t seen; what you see is him rebuilding the burned shell.
So Free State of Jones boils down to a great history lesson with beautiful cinematography, realism, and information not generally covered in stories of the American Civil War, especially in the South.
But the lesson could have been a great film and should have been. It’s a missed opportunity.