Immediately my back is up. Matthew – the-white-messiah – McConoughy is the poster boy of this story of slavery. He’s not a slave, of course, but befriends a group of men and women who escaped the clutch of their abusive masters.
Since Django Unchained and 12 Years A Slave, there is an instinctive issue with this period of history being told from his perspective. Free State of Jones nevertheless tries to tell this true story with integrity, using sprawling landscapes set upon an epic canvas, replete with grizzled, passionate actors who carry this humble tale to its conclusion. But it never shakes this character-problem at its core.
1862. Newton Knight (McConaughey) is a medic for the confederates. The mood is dour and we can see the countless lives lost for nothing. As he discusses the flawed conflict with fellow soldiers, he hears a rustle and finds his nephew (Greg Kennedy) in the woods. Knight desperately attempts to pull him out of the war but the young teenager takes a bullet to the chest. Taking the body, Knight leaves the front line, well aware that he is now a ‘deserter’ – a crime met with the death penalty. At home, families are attacked, their possessions stolen and crops carried off to “support the war effort”. Knight’s duty to protect eventually forces him to hide deeper in the swamp. This is where a group of slaves reside (including Mahershala Ali); protected by the surrounding waters, they are hidden from the masters they once knew. This collective effort inspires Knight and, as more leave the war, they band together to defy the confederate army. Men and women, black and white, they fight together. When hidden across the swamp, Knight falls for a maid, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Running parallel to this story is another, set 85 years later. Knight’s grandson is married to a white woman and prosecutors claim he is breaking their segregation laws, as he is apparently a descendant of a slave – but it’s not clear until the end who his grandmother is.
Describing this busy story puts into perspective how convoluted and flawed Free State of Jones is. To make matters worse, ‘Newt’ Knight stands up regularly to inspire his soldiers through passionate speeches and controversial statements that initially shock, then motivate his fellow deserters and outsiders. In one uncomfortable moment, he boldly asserts that he is not a ni**er – he is a man, like the men around him. It’s awkward and feels out of place. Director Gary Ross is trying to show people collectively rising up as a force for good – but it’s ham-fisted. To add insult to injury, actual photographs from the era are used to emphasise Free State of Jones‘s authenticity, comfortably pushing aside the horrific history Americans can often ignore.
Erin Whitney, for Screencrush, writes in detail about the handling of race in Free State of Jones. She pinpoints how, rather than “Black Lives Matter”, Ross’ decision to highlight “All Lives Matter” is grossly misjudged. What about Moses’ (Mahershala Ali) perspective? Or Rachel’s? They could’ve been front and centre. There’s also a strong presence and deep love of guns: they are the key to Newton’s power. The culture of firearms is an enormous part of US history, and this can’t be ignored in a period film like Free State of Jones. But a snarky, throwaway line revealing how easy it is for a child to shoot someone only reminds us of the contemporary horrors of gunfire today.
Viewed by an outsider, Free State of Jones simply highlights the corrupt record of ‘the south’. How the KKK hunted and murdered men, women and children. How, constantly, progress is stopped by white bureaucrats and politicians. I should feel the anger I felt when watching Selma and 12 Years A Slave but instead, I see a man framed as a hero. He blasts his enemies away at a funeral like a civil-war John Woo action star and picturesquely floats through a swampy terrain. We know so many heroes were nameless and The Newton Knight Story only reminds us how, shamefully, history is written by the victors.
This review was originally written for Culturefly in September 2016