Film: “Free State of Jones”; Director: Gary Ross; Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins, Donald Watkin, Jill Jane Clement; Rating: **1/2
“Free State of Jones” is a visual, history lesson of Jones County, Mississippi during the American Civil War. It is the story of a rebel within rebels, who is fighting against the Union.
Set between 1862 and 1947 and based on actual events, the narrative follows the life of a White farmer Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey).
After the death of his young cousin Daniel (Jacob Lofland) and surviving the Battle of Corinth, Knight, who was the Captain in the Confederate cavalry, realises that he is not “fighting for cotton” but is fighting for honour.” So he deserts the cavalry, making him the enemy of the South.
Knight further dissociates himself from the Confederates when he saves his neighbours from tax collectors and frees slaves. During the course of time, he comes across Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who introduces him to a small group of runaway slaves, which include Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), hiding in a swamp.
Being a white man, his interaction with the slaves in a secluded area makes him a sort of a superhero.
Soon, he leads a group of armed deserters and local slaves to fight against the Confederacy and the Union.
They set up headquarters in the swamps and declare “The Free State of Jones.”
It is interesting to hear a slave in a confused state say, I don’t understand, are we free or we ain’t free?”
Subsequently, Knight makes a home with Rachel and settles in the Free State of Jones.
Narrated in a non-linear manner, the film showcases the racial, gender and class politics of the period and the contingent nature of history and memory.
On the performance front, McConaughey certainly adds plenty of credibility to the scenes he is in. And he is aptly supported by the rest of the cast too.
While the film delves into Newton Knight’s life, it also opens avenues for characters and plot lines. But what makes the director’s choices striking is his effort to celebrate Knight in a conventional way when his resistance to conventions is precisely what makes his adventure unusual, not conventional.
The screenplay by Gary Ross based on the story written by Leonard Hartman, is confusing when it intercuts the narrative with a 1948 judiciary proceeding set in Ellisville, Mississippi. The proceeding which laid down the rules of segregation, discusses Davis (Brian Lee Franklin) Knight’s relationship and the origination of the mixed-race of Newton Knight’s descendants.
While Knight’s story is interesting, the film jumps around in time a fair bit and it never quite settles on anything compelling. This makes it hard to truly get immersed in a story with choppy editing and a confused direction.
The film is technically well mounted. Shot entirely in Louisiana, the visuals captured by Director of photography, Benoit Delhomme are atmospheric and real. What adds to depicting the era perfectly is Production Designer Philip Messina’s sets and Costume Designer Louise Frogley’s costumes.
Overall, this history lesson is a little too muddled to be inspiring, informative or even entertaining.