Civil War-era films are a tricky business. It’s very difficult to get it right, especially when it’s based on real events and a real person, and most especially when the protagonist is a white man. There’s a lot of history to represent here, so the devil is most certainly in the details. And boy, does Free State of Jones have a lot of details.
Inspired by a true story, the film follows Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a blacksmith from Mississippi who is working as a combat nurse during the Civil War. When his distraught nephew comes to him with news that he’s been drafted, Newton is forced into battle in order to protect his young kin. Already sickened by the needless bloodshed, Newton is even more disillusioned when his nephew is tragically killed. He deserts with the body, unwilling to fight a war for rich cotton farmers who only want to get richer.
As he sees more and more people’s properties being seized by “the tax man” for the Confederate troops, he begins forming a militia with various slaves and deserters to take over Jones County and rebel against the Confederate Army. Along the way he meets a beautiful slave by the name of Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The two eventually fall in love and have a child, further motivating Newton to carry on in his quest to end the war, and to eventually help lead Jones County, Mississippi secede from the Confederacy, effectively creating a “Free State of Jones.”
Directed by Gary Ross, Free State of Jones is a very dense film. Production value was high, with beautiful cinematography (especially the shots in the swamps), meticulous costume design, and impressive special effects which made the battle scenes all that much more heart wrenching. The depiction of war felt very real, and at times gruesome, with a young man’s leg sawed off within the first five minutes.
In a blatant attempt at Oscar number two, Matthew McConaughey certainly puts his all into the role of Newton Knight. He definitely looks the part of a 19th century deserter living in a swamp.
Mahershala Ali, who plays a runaway slave appropriately named Moses, has all the makings of an excellent leading man and is a great (and underutilized) addition to the film. He adds incredible strength and dignity to a character who, by the mere color of his skin, isn’t supposed to have any at all.
And why Gugu Mbatha-Raw isn’t a bona fide Hollywood movie star yet is beyond me. She’s enormously talented, and probably has one of the most beautiful faces I’ve ever seen on screen. As Rachel endures constant physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her master, she too stands tall with dignity and grace (and even learns how to read).
The film would have even been better if it had spent a little more time exploring these individuals’ stories, rather than as an extension of Knight’s singular heroism. ~Shelby Morton
Bonus Feature: The History of Jones County
Care to rate and write your own review of Free State of Jones? Click here.