Editor’s Notes: Free State of Jones is out on in its respective home video format September 20th.
One of the best aspects of motion pictures is their ability to bring to light and emphasize parts of our history that the textbooks overlook or deem too insignificant to include. Free State of Jones (Universal Home Entertainment) is about the controversial real-life figure, Newton Knight, regarded today by some as a deserter to the Confederate cause and by others as a hero who stood up to his own countrymen during the Civil War.
In 1862, the Civil War is raging. Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a battlefield nurse who sees more than his share of carnage as he transports bodies to field hospitals, ducking enemy gunfire and risking his own life in the process. A new Confederate law exempts sons of slave owners from military service. For every 20 slaves owned, another son is exempt. This obvious inequity in favor of wealthy landowners angers Knight. When his terrified teenage nephew is killed soon after entering battle, Knight determines to return the boy’s body to his mother. Leaving without permission marks him as a deserter.
Hiding out in Mississippi bayou country, Knight come across a group of escaped slaves and deserters. The environment offers them refuge until the war closes in on them.
Director Gary Ross takes the dramatic path that portrays Knight as an unsung hero, not a deserter who betrayed the Confederate cause. He is prompted, however, more by resentment against economic injustice than altruism. He feels that he has been suckered into fighting a war to protect the economic interests of the rich. Feeling disenfranchised, Knight and his ragtag colleagues, decide to establish a free state in Jones County, Mississippi — the heart of the Confederacy.
Ross extends the story to 1876, illustrating in graphic detail the Reconstruction Era, rise of the Ku Klux Klan, rampant lynchings of blacks, and attempts to suppress voter registration of former slaves. To manage all this in a reasonable running time, Ross interpolates vintage photos and on-screen information to bridge historical developments in the post-war South. There is also a story set 85 years later involving a descendant of Knight’s on trial for miscegenation. Though it shows the South’s lingering racism, this series of scenes seems overbearing and could easily have been eliminated to provide a smoother, tighter narrative.
McConaughey turns in a solid performance as Knight, completely devoid of the mannerisms and quirks he’s exhibited in lighter film roles. The script treats Knight as a one-dimensional modern-day Moses, idealistically leading his followers but resorting to violence when necessary. An especially grim scene shows Knight dealing with a Southern officer in response to his ordering the hanging of two men and a boy.
Two women feature prominently in the film — Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a young black woman who helps to hide Knight and later becomes more intimately involved with him, and Serena (Keri Russell), Knight’s wife, who flees to Georgia with their infant son. Unfortunately, there is a minimum of chemistry between McConaughey and either of them. Their scenes appear all too polite and cordial, and lack any inkling of passion.
Rated R for graphic scenes of battle and other strong images, Free State of Jones has a preachy quality that hammers home its message repeatedly, as if we might miss its point — the Civil War was an economic conflict driven by greed, for the benefit of rich slave owners who exploited African-American slaves and poor whites alike.
The 2-disc Blu-ray + DVD release contains the featurette “The History of Jones County,” once a battlefield covered by plantations and plagued by class struggle. A digital HD copy is included.