sat 05/12/2020

Free State of Jones | reviews, news & interviews

Free State of Jones

Free State of Jones

Remarkable true story of Civil War renegades suffers from shagginess

War, what is it good for? Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight

Given the fractious state of American politics, perhaps it's a suitable moment for a movie taking a look back at the American Civil War. However, despite heaving at the seams with good intentions and noble sentiments, Gary Ross's Free State of Jones ultimately can't justify its debilitating 140-minute running time.

Given the fractious state of American politics, perhaps it's a suitable moment for a movie taking a look back at the American Civil War. However, despite heaving at the seams with good intentions and noble sentiments, Gary Ross's Free State of Jones ultimately can't justify its debilitating 140-minute running time.

It's based on the real-life story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Mississippi farmer who turned deserter and ended up declaring his own independent mini-state, one peopled by runaway slaves and former soldiers sickened by the Civil War carnage and the rapacious martial law imposed by the Confederate authorities. The opening sequence at the battle of Corinth, Mississippi is a wince-making depiction of the savagery of the fighting, with Confederate troops dropping like slaughterhouse offal under the Union's barrage of rifle fire and murderous artillery air-bursts.

When a teenage relative, Daniel, turns up in the Confederate trenches, having been arbitrarily conscripted by soldiers plundering his family home, Knight (working as a hospital orderly) desperately tries to protect him, but he's fatally wounded by a sniper. Knight slips away from the battlefield to take the dead boy home to his distraught mother, and ends up with a group of fugitive slaves hiding out in the Missisippi swamps.

"War – what is it good for?" is one of the central questions which Ross and writer Leonard Hartman ask. While soldiers at the front are being sawn up in the field hospitals, life on the home front is reduced to a state of miserable subsistence as the economy dries up and the military ransacks the countryside like the Sheriff of Nottingham's men. Knight becomes a Dixie Robin Hood, resisting the army's looting raids against honest working folk and inveighing against a war in which the proletariat are slaughtered to protect the interests of wealthy slave-owning cotton barons.

In this telling, his Free State of Jones – based around Jones County, Mississippi – is a beacon of socialistic enlightenment, based on such principles as "The rich shall not exploit the poor", "What a man grows with his own hands ought to belong to him", and "If you walk on two legs you're a man". Knight's symbolic freeing of ex-slave Moses (Mahershala Ali) from his grotesque spiked neck-collar kicks off their rebellion, as the renegades take up arms against the slave-hunters and their dogs. Meanwhile the Confederate soldiers are typecast as callous oppressors, personified by the smirking cavalry officer Lieutenant Barbour (Bill Tangradi).

A biblically bewhiskered, burning-eyed McConaughey rises to the occasion, inspiring his compatriots with fluent rhetoric which is all the more persuasive for being delivered in the actor's mellifluous, musical Southern tones (he's a Texan) rather than via histrionic bellowing. However, while bigging up the idealistic vision thing, director Ross never quite manages to explain how Knight's ragged army managed to achieve a benign multiracial utopia in the midst of the Confederacy. Still, he was clearly a man prepared to ride into battle against the social conventions of his era. He's depicted here living with his white wife, Serena (Keri Russell, pictured above), and a black ex-slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the pair of them jointly helping to raise Rachel's child, though in reality Knight had five children with Rachel and nine with Serena.

With the ending of the Civil War, the narrative begins to fray. Ross dutifully follows Knight's story through the South's Reconstruction and beyond, as the new United States struggles to overcome the war's bitter antagonisms, but as decades start to spin past the drama dries up and the film lapses into a string of bullet-points, as if the director is frantically trying to cram everything in before his running time tops the three-hour mark. Intermittent scenes of a 1950s court case, in which Knight's descendant Davis Knight is convicted of breaking Mississippi's racial segregation laws because he has a part-black lineage and has married a white woman, merely complicates the story rather than sharpening the perspective. Perhaps the ideal medium for Knight's story would be a mini-series on HBO.

@SweetingAdam

Knight becomes a Dixie Robin Hood, resisting the military's looting raids against honest working folk

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Editor Rating: 
3
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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My Great Grandfather was considered a walking reference book of Newt Knight information, having been raised on the neighboring farm to the Knights. There are many liberties taken in this film. One of the most glaring is the portrayal of Davis Knight as appearing to be a white man. Google an image of him, and you can clearly see that he was more black than white. He was what was known in Jones County back then as a Newt Knight N********. I am not defending miscegenation laws, just stating facts. Another big leap is Newt declaring in the movie that the Knight Company controlled three counties when they didn't even control Jones County.

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