Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a poor man fighting a rich man’s war, and he knows it. The rich men have cleverly saved themselves from war by enacting the 20 Negro Law, which exempts any man who owns 20 slaves. Nice loophole. Knight is less than pleased. When a very young recruit is gunned down beside him, he straps the body to a horse and sets off to return the boy to his mother for burial. The only problem is, this act stinks of desertion to everyone that matters.
Not content with hiding out, Knight (a real historical figure) instead founds the “free state of Jones”, made up of deserters, runaway slaves, and women, and they start their own mini rebellion against the corrupt Confederates in charge. The soldiers have been raiding local homes, taking their “10%” (more like 90), but leaving large plantations untouched. These people aren’t exactly hard to convince which side will benefit them most.
Free State of Jones is graphic from the get-go, but if you can survive the first two or three minutes, the worst of the gore is over. It helps to establish how bloody and senseless this war is (the civil war, if that’s not clear): no matter how perfectly rhythmic the marching, it doesn’t stop you from getting mowed down. Director Gary Ross also tries to give the film some context by intercutting the main story with courtroom snippets of a case against a man 1\8th negro, a coloured person in the eyes of the law, who thus is not allowed to be married to his white wife. I didn’t care for the splicing but came to appreciate it by the end.
This is absolutely a brilliant and worthy piece of history but it’s not quite done right by Free State of Jones. The movie’s well over 2 hours but feels as though it lollygags from scene to scene, dwelling in weird places, then rushing through others. Perhaps Ross has simply bitten off more than he can chew, but you can see his good intentions shine through. What we need, though, is passion. It’s sadly lacking here. Even McConaughey’s strong performance is muddied by the white saviour characterization: Knight was a much more divisive figure.
I enjoyed this movie but was frustrated by its limitations. I would have liked to have seen more of Rachel, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who I think is spectacular but criminally underused in this film. I wouldn’t stop anyone from watching Free State of Jones, but I am endeavouring to temper your expectations. The civil war has many stories to tell, but they aren’t just historical ones. There are a lot of modern consequences, enough to give you shivers.