Free State of Jones: Overlooked Gems

Directed by Gary Ross
STX Entertainment, 140 minutes, R (violence and extreme gore)

The next time some good ole' boy trots out Lost Cause bullshit, ask if any of his ancestors fought for the Confederacy. If they didn't, chances are pretty good that ancestor was a slaveholder; if they did, there's a 50-50 chance his glorious kinfolk were Civil War deserters.

The Free State of Jones bombed at the box office, returning just half of its $50 million budget. It's not a great movie, but its financial shortcomings have less to do with its artistic merit than with the fact that it blows the lid off any notion that the Confederacy was any sort of noble cause, or that the Civil War took place over abstractions such as states' rights. In a word, it was about slavery, specifically the right of rich slaveholders to use poor boys to defend their assets. There was great doubt from the outset. Slave states such as Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri stayed out of the Confederacy and the 41 western  counties of Virginia seceded and became the Union state of West Virginia. Any claim to Southern morality disappeared when the South enacted a conscription law in 1862 that allowed the wealthy (aged 18-35) to hire substitutes—even those underage–to fight for them. In October of 1862 , they amended the law to expand the draft age and put into place the Twenty Negro Law, which automatically exempted anyone owning or overseeing more than 20 slaves. No one knows exactly who first uttered the phrase "a rich man's war and a poor man's fight," but thousands of po' boys voted with their feet and went AWOL. So many walked away that manpower needed on the lines was diverted into hunting down deserters and runaway slaves. By 1864, the desertion rate was over 60% in some areas.

The Free State of Jones opens in 1862, the month the Twenty Negro Law was enacted. We meet Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) at the bloody Battle of Corinth, where he works with Confederate medical units bringing in the wounded and hauling away corpses, body parts, and viscera.  These scenes are so gruesome they dispel all romantic nonsense about war. Newton already had grave doubts, but when his barely teen-aged conscript nephew Daniel (Jacob Lofland) meets a senseless end, Knight deserts and takes Daniel's body back to Jones County, Mississippi. While there he finds that CSA troops under the command of Elias Hood (Thomas Francis Murphy) are looting hardscrabble farms while local plantations remain enclaves of luxury. Newton will hang if found, so he abandons his wife Serena (Keri Russell), launches a guerilla rebellion of the poor, and hides out in the swamps with runaway slaves. There he strikes up a friendship with Moses Washington (Mahershal Ali) and finds himself increasingly attracted to Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the house slave who secretly provisions the runaways. Soon, local poor whites and AWOL soldiers seek out Knight's guerilla band. After the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, all pretenses are dropped, the county secedes from Mississippi, and the biracial Free State of Jones is proclaimed. But can such a rebellion succeed? And what of Knight's relationship with Rachel, which is doubly problematic because he's already married and Rachel is black. Knight is making advances militarily, but who will arrive first, the Southern Patrol or General Sherman? Is Knight's biracial imagination too much for mid-19th century Southern values?

Ross' film is overly ambitious. Ross extends it to depict Reconstruction, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the end of Reconstruction, and scenes from 1947, when Knight's great-great-great grandson is facing the problem that he might be 1/8 black and his marriage might violate Mississippi's Jim Crow miscegenation laws. Ross' motives are admirable, but it's simply too much for one film. Thorny postwar issues can only be glossed and even then, at 140 minutes, it's a very long film. It would have made for a more coherent film had Ross ended with the war's completion and added explanatory text-over-photo postscripts.

I suspect he didn't because he wanted viewers to smell racism's full fetid stink. He also ran afoul of painting such strong characters that he felt compelled to show us what happened to Knight, Rachel, Serena, and Moses. A word about Matthew McConaughey: Hollywood tried its best to make him into a star and he opted to become a serious actor instead. (See his recent work in films such as Interstellar, Mud, and Dallas Buyers Club). McConaughey is sterling as Newton Knight, whom he plays with piercing steely-eyed resolve. His is a charisma that spreads slowly and soon we are engulfed in it. It is one of the better performances in a film few have seen. The Free State of Jones is well worth a download–not a great film, but a good one, and a timely one given the sorry state of black/white relations in contemporary America.

Rob Weir

Postscript: Historians are divided as to whether the Free State of Jones was a viable entity, a symbol of the war's chaos, or merely a bit of quixotic bombast. It's also ambiguous whether Knight's motives were Robin Hood-like or merely personal. Let's just say there's more nobility to Knight than to the Confederacy.

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