IT AIN'T JUST FOR US.
BLACK, WHITE, RICH, POOR,
IT'S FOR EVERYBODY.
-Newton Knight [to Moses]
Wow, it's been a while since my last review. Unfortunately, I had to remove 'X-Men: Apocalypse' from my film review list. I just can't bear to see and review terrible films. I've also had to remove 'The Huntsman: Winters War,' 'The Boss,' and 'Batman v. Superman.' As you may recall last year, I made a resolution not see so many crappy movies this year. After all, we only have so much time and I can't get two hours of my life back. I also put a lot of time and effort into writing a review. So I will occasionally cull films off my list. 'Free State of Jones' was almost removed from my list because of mixed reviews, but overall I'm glad I saw it.
There has been a lot of criticism of 'Free State of Jones' for various reasons, which has led to trouble at the box office. Summer box office viewing is down overall, but this makes it even more difficult for the "fair to middling" films to succeed this summer. The biggest issue critics have with the film is that it depicts the mythical "savior" complex. Some the critics are claiming the 'Free State of Jones' has been done in the Hollywood tradition of 'The Help,' 'The Blind Side,' 'Dances with Wolves,' 'Dangerous Minds,' 'Glory,' 'The Last Samurai'-- the list goes on. Normally I would agree, but not this time. I feel like these critics are missing the big picture. The film is ultimately a biopic about Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who was clearly a man ahead of his time and who led a very interesting life. His story and the story of Jones County, Mississippi is a story that has been lost to history and it's a story that should be told.
To my knowledge, the story of pro-Union southerners during the American Civil War has NEVER been told (on film) before. Despite the fact that several southern states like North Carolina and Tennessee had large unionist populations and the state of West Virginia actually broke away from the state of Virginia because of Civil War--this side of history is rarely discussed. So in this regard, 'The Free State of Jones' is groundbreaking.
HE DIED WITH HONOR
-Will [to Newton]
NO, WILL, HE JUST DIED.
-Newton [to Will]
Our fair film begins with confederate medic Newton Knight. He genuinely cares for the wounded men and tries to help them as best as he can. It's clear that confederate resources are limited, but Knight makes do with what he has. He faithfully serves until the Confederacy exempts the wealthy from fighting. The straw that breaks the camel's back is when Knight's beloved young nephew is forcibly conscripted and subsequently killed. In order to earn it's "R" rating, the film has a lot needless gore in the first 10 minutes. Some gore in a film about war makes sense, but this didn't add anything to the story, except shock and spectacle.
I'M TIRED OF IT. YOU, ME, ALL OF IT.
WE'RE ALL OUT THERE DYING
SO THEY CAN STAY RICH.
Knight returns his nephew to his sister and decides to never return to the battlefield--disgusted with the war and its cause. As a poor non-slave owning farmer, he comes to the realization that he's fighting to keep other people wealthy. This glaring realization is the strongest plot point in the film.
Side note: There has been a perpetual myth about the American Civil War--that the war was not about slavery, but about states rights and commerce. Yet what particular state's right was being fought over? The "right" to own other human beings and profit off of them. The war began when an anti-slavery candidate (President Abraham Lincoln) won the presidency. If anyone doubt's that please read the Declaration of Causes of Seceding States. It's very clear that this war was about slavery and the people who profited from it. The film unapologetically reiterates that.
IT'S QUITE AN ARMY YOU GOT THERE.
LAST TIME I CHECKED THE GUN
DON'T CARE WHO'S PULLING THE TRIGGER.
As a deserter Knight doesn't keep a low profile, much to the chagrin of his long suffering wife, Serena (Keri Russell). Instead he helps his neighbors avoid confederate collection crews. The poor farmers of Jones County were being starved out of house and home in support of the war effort, while the wealthy planters continued to live high off the hog. After holding off a small unit of confederate soldiers by arming young girls with rifles, Knight is accused of treason and goes on the run. He ends up in the swamps with a group of runaway slaves and is helped by a young house a slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). As the war worsens for the south, more confederate deserters join him, his wife leaves him, and his farm is burned down. At some point they have enough people to form their own society and defend themselves.
THEY'RE POOR FARMERS, DESERTERS,
AND RUNAWAY SLAVES,
WHO FRANKLY SIR,
DON'T HAVE MUCH TO LOSE.
-Col. Robert Lowry
Once the war is finally over, the film takes a gutsy turn by (all too briefly) focusing on the reconstruction era and the rampant injustices faced by African Americans during the beginning of the Jim Crow time period. Yet another intriguing part of the film is glossed over. But despite the film's flaws (which are plentiful), there is some great work here by the cast, especially McConaughey and Mahershala Ali (Moses). There are a few scenes between the two of them that provide the film with much needed levity and banter. I've always said that McConaughey is an underrated actor. I'm so glad he won an Oscar a few years ago to shut down the haters because it's McConaughey's acting that carries this film.
THE WINDS ARE SHIFTING AND YOU
CAN'T FIGHT IT THIS TIME.
THERE'S PLENTY LEFT TO FIGHT FOR.
There is also a strange subplot, regarding one of Newton and Rachel's descendants, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) who is being tried for miscegenation in 1948. This could have been it's own storyline in of itself. The way Ross handles the two varying subplots makes little sense. Is this a historical biopic or is this a flashback?
The writers didn't sugarcoat the fact that Rachel was being raped by her owner. Given the abuse Rachel was suffering, the writers may have wanted to tread lightly, but still I don't see the harm in showing some form of affection, such as a kiss. In reality Serena and Rachel were like "sister wives." This was briefly touched on in the film, but heavily sanitized. You can learn more about the complicated nature of his relationship with his wives here. Clearly this was a complicated family and people (even heroic people) are rarely perfect, but Hollywood never seems to scratch beneath the surface.
THESE MEN ARE HERE TO VOTE.
AND THEY MIND DYING A WHOLE
LOT LESS THAN YOU DO.
Speaking of the women folk-- I think this film just barely passes the Bechdel test with just one scene between Serena and Rachel. One day I hope that Hollywood realizes that women exist. We are 50% of the population. Women also speak to other women. How does Hollywood still not understand this? Neither Keri or Gugu's characters are fleshed out beyond their standard supportive woman role. I think I could probably count their lines on two hands between them.
THREE 1/2 OUT OF FIVE STARS.