It is easy to see why Matthew McConaughey might have been attracted to the new Civil War drama, Free State Of Jones, because if ever there was a role that fits this actor like a glove it has to be Newt Knight, the Mississippi farmer who led a group of white farmers and runaway slaves in a revolt against the confederacy during the Civil War.
Writer-director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit) reportedly spent ten years researching this true, but relatively unheralded, story and brings it to screen in a way that doesn’t try to let any fact slip by unnoticed by the audience. In fact there are more graphic factoids on display than just about any historical movie I have seen in a long while. Add to that, unnecessary flash forward 85 years in the future to a 1948 courtroom involving the great grandson of Knight involved in a miscegenation trial and we get the idea. Those scenes are full of speechifying as is the rest of this very well-intentioned and often entertaining if overlong, film.
As I say in my video review (click the link above to watch), sometimes it can be a drawback though when a filmmaker gets too passionate about the research and historical material, losing sight of the core reason for making the film in the first place. I have a feeling a lot of moviegoers will be thinking they are stuck in summer school taking a make-up history course with all the real life truths Ross’ script throws at them.
That aside, Ross is too good a director, and this too good a yarn, to let the facts get completely in the way of a good time, and once the main action gets going and Knight begins putting together his band of renegades, Free State Of Jones takes on the air of a good old-fashioned Civil War-set Western. This defiant act by Knight represented the first Southern-based mixed race community, even one that was outnumbered, on the run in the swamps with woefully fewer weapons at their command. Still the message – and there are lots of them – is clear here. Knight stands for the fact that ALL men are equal and rails against prejudice and exploitation even in such an explosive time. This tells the tale from a different POV, that not all the South was unified in their support of slavery or the Confederacy. That makes this Civil War flick definitely different, but ultimately it will likely pale in comparison to Nate Parker’s upcoming Sundance sensation, The Birth Of A Nation which deals with a slave revolt from the point of view of those slaves.
Ross loads this film with one scene after another of this white man standing for the rights of everyone. In McConaughey’s hands it works as far as it goes but still there is a feeling we may have seen one too many of these stories where the understanding white guy takes the slaves under his wing and tries to atone for the sins of society. There isn’t a whole lot of complexity to Newt whose last name is apt — he does seem like a bit of white knight here. But he is quite a character, a man in the Deep South who also takes a black woman (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as his common law wife. Keri Russell plays his first wife and the relationship is intriguing. McConaughey plays him for all he’s worth and commands the screen. Mbatha-Raw also is impressive, as is Mahershala Ali as Moses, a runaway slave who plays a key role in the rebellion. He is heartbreaking. The bad guys are a bit on the one dimensional side.
It does seem a bit odd that Newt Knight’s story has not been exploited in any big way before, at least cinematically, but Free State Of Jones might be in for a rough ride with a prime summer release this weekend against invading aliens (Independence Day: Resurgence) and man- and woman-eating sharks (The Shallows), not to mention blood thirsty teen fashion models (The Neon Demon). So you have to admire new distributor STX offering an adult alternative on a wide-release basis. Producers are Ross, Scott Stuber and Jon Kilik.
Do you plan to see Free State Of Jones? Let us know what you think.