Free State of JonesCultureCinemaMovie reviews
Based on a true story, Free State of Jones recounts the exploits of Newton Knight, a southern army deserter during the American Civil War, who rallies the people of Jones County into a briefly successful rebellion. It evolves from there into a harrowing account of race relations in the South but, while it’s undoubtedly an important piece of history and earnestly made, the end result is somewhat lacking.
We’re introduced to Knight (Matthew McConaughey) in the heat of battle, a combat medic rather than a soldier, who deserts after his nephew is killed. His disillusionment grows after he learns that Confederate troops have been seizing crops and livestock. While hiding out with a group of runaway slaves, he leads an armed rebellion. The narrative is spread thin – trying to cram in the entirety of the Civil War and the beginnings of the so-called “Reconstruction period” that follows – with the abolishment of slavery, Knight championing the cause of freedmen, and fathering children with a former slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Beginning rather bafflingly in the middle, the story is also interspersed with the plight of Knight’s great-great-great grandson on trial for his marriage to a white woman.
Right from the start, there are some pacing issues; the first third or so crawls along, introducing a whole slew of characters only briefly touched on. Aside from our leading man, there’s no real time for the audience to grow attached to anyone, even Rachel, his love interest. There’s too much plot to cover and rather confused politics.
The more pressing issue here, though, is that while Knight was undoubtedly an important figure, this remains a story ostensibly about slavery that sets the bulk of the narrative on a white man’s shoulders. A movie from the perspective of Rachel, who herself fights in the rebellion, or freed slave Moses (Mahershala Ali), Knight’s friend whose struggles speak volumes about the post-slavery plight of African-Americans, would be far more compelling and perhaps relevant.
Put simply: it’s rather difficult to empathise fully with Knight when the film is populated by characters far more interesting than he and struggling far more.
Free State of Jones is released nationwide on 30th September 2016.
Watch the trailer for Free State of Jones here: