Seceding From The Secession: Free State Of Jones
Free State Of Jones tells the tale of a Mississippi farmer who challenges the authority of the Confederacy during the Civil War. Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a soldier in 1862 who never wanted to be a part of the fight who has grown tired of the preferential treatment he sees with the officers and plantation owners. Since he never wanted to fight, he returns to his wife Serena (Keri Russell) and their young son. Trouble follows when troops come and take what they want from Newt and neighnoring farmers. Newt helps them fight, but the trouble becomes too much for Serena, who takes their son and leaves him. The trouble makes Newt a wanted man. Thanks to a sympathetic saloon owner, Newt finds a place to hide in a place surrounded by swamps. The only other men there are runaway slaves, including Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali). The men look after one another, while a house slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) helps the escapees with provisions.
After the 1863 Battle Of Vicksburg, Newt and the others find themselves joined by other deserters. That brings the troops led by Lieutenent Barbour (Brad Carter). When some troops surrender peacefully, Barbour's colonel orders them hanged. That helps Newt, Moses, and the others devise a plan to confront the troops and take over Jones County and some of the surrounding counties. They, as the Knight Company, declare a free state, where they declare it illegal for one man to own another. As their control grows, so does Newt's relationship with Rachel. Their free state continues until the war ends, and Mississippi rejoins a country that had ratified an official end to slavery. The following decade leads to new troubles for Newt and his allies.
Free State Of Jones is based on Knight and his life and exploits, but writer-director Gary Ross makes this interesting chapter of Civil War and Reconstruction history rather ordinary. Viewers know that things will generally not end well when the former slaves start to assert their rights as free men, especially as the Ku Klux Klan makes their presence known. Ross also flashes forward to 1948 Mississippi, when one of Newt's descendants stands trial for upholding the same sort of values Newt had done many years earlier. Those scenes disrupt the flow of the movie, and easily could have been handled quickly at the film's conclusion. The sequences involving Newt and his relationship with Serena upon her return to the farm seem modern, since she and Rachel share a home without any quarrel. Besides the main characters, Ross does little to give the secondary characters much distinction. Still, he speaks to issues of rights that remain relevant today. Free State Of Jones certainly does a better job of telling the Knight story than the 1948 movie Tap Roots, which changed the names and changed the setting to a plantation. The only African American presence in that movie was Ruby Dandridge, the house maid on the plantation.
McConaughey gives a solid performance as Newt, a man who never sought to be a leader, but accepted the challenge to redefine the way men treated one another. He stood for all men in his free state, even when the Union forces had their doubts about Newt and the stance he took. The issue of equal rights grew more personal over the passage of time and the general prevailing attitudes. Mbatha-Raw, though, is the quiet scene stealer as Rachel, who originally met Newt when a lack of doctors had Newt asking a favor of a plantation owner to send her to see if she could help the Knights' son. Rachel also quietly educates herself and grows closer to Newt as she becomes his support. Ali and Russell contribute nicely in much smaller roles.
The story of Newton Knight is one of the many interesting stories from the Civil War era, for he seemed much more accepting and forward-thinking than most who lived during that time. Others have disputed Knight's legacy and intentions, but nobody can say Newt Knight and his company were different from most living in the Confederacy and the reunited states that followed. Knight, in some circles, would be seen as progressive today. Free State Of Jones tells a relatively unknown chapter of Civil War history, but misses the opportunity to make it as distinctive as the people who lived it. The film, however, does speak to the division that exists today in American society. The lesson Knight teaches those living today is that equal rights need to truly be equal, regardless of race or status.
On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Free State Of Jones three stars. Southerners stuck between the Union and the Confederacy.