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Review: Free State of Jones (2016)

Free State of Jones (2016)

Directed by: Gary Ross

Premise: Based on a true story. Set during the American Civil War, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) leads a group of Mississippi residents in a resistance movement against the Confederate army.

What Works: There is a lot to admire about Free State of Jones. The movie takes place during the Civil War and it has a gritty sense of reality. Its production values are impressive but Free State of Jones doesn’t look too Hollywood. The set design and the costuming have an organic look of wear and tear and the battle scenes are violent in a way that captures the difficulty and clumsiness of nineteenth century warfare. This effectively puts the audience in the historical moment of the film. Free State of Jones’ realism is aided by the performances. The movie is led by Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight and McConaughey’s performance is admirably restrained. When A-list actors get this kind of role they tend to do a lot of grandstanding but even when McConaughey’s character gives his obligatory inspirational speech he’s far more naturalistic than similar moments in Braveheart and Hoosiers. Free State of Jones also has impressive supporting performances by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rachel, a slave who takes up with Knight, and Mahershala Ali as Moses, another former slave in the Knight Company. Mbatha-Raw and Ali convey the trauma of slavery but also the dignity of freedom and those qualities elevate the movie. It’s also worth noting that Free State of Jones has a complex grasp of racism and classism and the causes of the Civil War and the difficulties of the Reconstruction era. The movie acknowledges that even people who fought against the Confederacy could be afflicted with racism and that the oppression of African Americans did not end with the war. And in that respect there are noble intentions behind this movie. The filmmakers of Free State of Jones are trying to tell a story that is worth telling and use the past to illuminate the present.

What Doesn’t: However noble the filmmakers’ intentions might be, the fact is that the story of Free State of Jones is a mess. This is a classic example of filmmakers dramatizing a true story and getting lost amid the facts. There is a lot in this movie that is fascinating but it is not presented in a way that is dramatically coherent. It doesn’t seem like the filmmakers knew what story they were trying to tell and so the film is a series of events without a shape. As a result, the point of the story gets lost. The filmmakers also clumsily handle some important expository information. Newton Knight begins the film married to a white woman, played by Keri Russell, with whom he has produced a son. They separate when Knight goes into hiding at which point he takes up with Rachel, a slave who has joined the resistance movement. The status of Knight’s relationship with his wife and mistress is complex but the filmmakers don’t adequately explore their lives together. Free State of Jones is really hurt by a subplot that is totally out of place. The movie periodically flashes forward eighty-five years to the trial of Knight’s distant grandson Davis (Brian Lee Franklin), who descends from the interracial relationship between Newton and Rachel. Davis married a white woman but because he had an African American ancestor he was legally considered black and therefore guilty of violating Mississippi’s miscegenation laws. This story would make an interesting movie in its own right or it could be used effectively here if Free State of Jones competently crosscut past and present like The Godfather Part II. But the filmmakers don’t commit to this subplot and it’s a jarring transition that is out of place in the movie and disrupts the viewing experience instead of enhancing it.

Bottom Line: The true story behind Free State of Jones is an interesting historical anecdote but this film doesn’t tell that story effectively. It’s a well-intended movie but it’s not well executed and it therefore fails as a piece of drama.

Episode: #602 (July 10, 2016)