Film review: Free State of Jones suffers from ambition

Matthew McConaughey leads a small group of Civil War rebels to challenge the Confederacy in Free State of Jones. Photo: STX Productions Matthew McConaughey leads a small group of Civil War rebels to challenge the Confederacy in Free State of Jones. Photo: STX Productions

Free State of Jones has heart, it certainly has brains, yet any semblance of a body for either to do its job properly is nowhere to be found. Supposedly the story of Newton Knight, the controversial leader of a rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi, Jones is little more than a sequence of dry-yet-prescient historical observations by people who have clearly done their homework, punctuated by Knight (Matthew McConaughey) being right about everything a century before the world would come to agree with him.

This is a shame, because Free State of Jones is not without its qualities. Unlike most wide-release films that only pretend to deal with hot topics and then consciously avoid conclusions that may alienate potential ticket buyers, director Gary Ross is unafraid of strident moral and political declarations. Knight is depicted as linking slavery with class after witnessing conscripted Confederate soldiers receiving a waiver from the front lines if they own 20 or more slaves. He is against the practice in its own right as a sin against God, but the element of class warfare in the struggle against slavery is one that has gone largely unexplored in American discourse.

After Knight deserts his post, his troubles with the Confederacy only intensify. After defending civilians from unjust seizure of property and forming close personal relationships with runaway slaves, Knight and his followers lead a full-scale revolt based on the belief that a man owns the product of his own labor, and they eventually occupy Ellisville, Jones County. The rebellion is able to maintain its stronghold until the end of the war, just in time for an entirely new battle over efforts by the rich to maintain their power by disenfranchising freed slaves and engaging in rampant voter intimidation by organizations such as the newly formed KKK.

This, unfortunately, is also when the film’s flaws overtake its assets. At first, Ross’ commitment to historical fidelity over character development appears to be out of a desire to educate the audience rather than pander, but eventually this lofty goal devolves into rote recitation of facts—often presented on-screen—with Knight and company reacting to this new development. Then it’s back to more facts, then back to reacting, and so on. This strangulation of drama for excessive detail is the same flaw that doomed Oliver Stone’s ambitious epic, Alexander, and though Ross is far less bombastic than Stone, he is similarly focused on the wrong aspects of the story to make his film engaging.

Perhaps the most puzzling decision was to give the film a framing device, yet choosing to reveal this fact not by starting there and flashing back, but by flashing forward to the 1940s every so often when the main narrative begins to lag. It seems that a descendant of Newton Knight’s named Davis Knight was tried and convicted of miscegenation due to being one-eighth black and marrying a white woman. The confusion around Davis’ lineage stems from Newton living with two women following the war, one a former partner who had his child (Keri Russell) and a former slave who worked and fought alongside Newton in the rebellion (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Davis even has the same conversation with his wife that Newton had with his, about moving North to escape laws like these. It’s interesting, no doubt, yet far too complicated to be presented as hastily as it is.

The intention of these directorial choices is clear: The end of a war does not mean the end of its root causes. History is not static. We live with the consequences of past decisions every day. The choices we make now will affect future generations in ways we cannot predict, but we ought to try anyway. These are worthy arguments that deserve to be made, and perhaps the story of Knight and the rebellion in Jones County is the right moment in history to dramatize them. Unfortunately, due to massively confusing structural problems and a complete lack of focus, Free State of Jones is neither the film that it wants to be nor the film it should have been: a documentary.

Free State of Jones R, 139 minutes
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