Free State of Jones (2016)

  • Time: 139 min
  • Genre: Action | Biography | Drama
  • Director: Gary Ross
  • Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell


Set during the Civil War, Free State of Jones tells the story of defiant Southern farmer, Newt Knight, and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy. Banding together with other small farmers and local slaves, Knight launched an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones. Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, distinguishing him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance long beyond the War.

2 reviews

  • Free State of Jones spotlights the little-known tale of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Mississippi farmer who led a rebellion against the Confederacy with a significant assist from a group of runaway slaves. Director and screenwriter Gary Ross covers a great deal of narrative ground, including the aftermath of the emancipation during which time an apprenticeship system essentially replaced slavery, the birth of the Ku Klux Klan, and a fast-forward some 85 years later when one of his great-grandsons, though only 1/8th black, is standing trial for his illegal marriage to a white woman. Unfortunately, most if not all of the the stories are leeched of their fascination. Where Free State of Jones should be enlightening, rousing and affecting, it is instead disengaging, ineffectual and deathly dull.

    The film begins on the battlefield, freshly littered with the bodies of Confederate troops, including the neighbour’s son Newton has sworn to protect. Anti-secessionist and anti-slavery, he’s disgusted to hear of the new law that exempts the oldest sons in Confederate households from fighting in the war if the family owns at least 20 slaves. His outrage is further ignited when, upon his return home, he witnesses Confederate soldiers looting local farms. An ensuing stand-off between Newton and the solders results in Newton deserting the army and hiding out in the Mississippi bayou. There he bonds with several renegade slaves including Moses (Mahershala Ali), who bears a metal guard with spears pointing upward, and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who will soon become Newton’s common-law wife. Tired of fighting so the rich can keep their cotton, Newton convinces them and the hundreds that will soon join this burgeoning community that they take up arms and strike back at their oppressors.

    There’s no denying Ross’ determination to present what is historically known of Newton and the events that took place in Jones County, Mississippi between 1862 and 1876, but a good drama is not powered by historical accuracy alone. Free State of Jones is heavy on banter – quotidian, expository, ideological – but it is sorely lacking in simple human drama. The friendship between Newton and Moses is given short shrift as are the relationship between Newton and Rachel and the dynamics between Newton, Rachel and his wife Serena (Keri Russell), who comes to live with them after her farm is burned down. Just imagine that scenario: a wife having to swallow her pride and ask her husband and his common-law black wife for shelter. Yet Ross does next to nothing with it – next time the ladies are shown, Serena and Rachel are sitting and laughing on the porch as Serena bounces Rachel’s baby on her lap. The talented Mbatha-Raw and Russell are both sorely wasted – their characters are so inconsequential it’s a wonder why Ross chose to include them at all. (Newton would go on to have five children with Rachel and nine with Serena – what a movie that would have made!)

    Even the community created by Newton feels blurry in its focus and improbably utopic. Blacks and whites co-exist with nary an unkind word or wary gaze. There is one instance of racial tension when one of the white men calls Moses the N-word, but it’s designed less to exhibit how the racial divide can be tentatively bridged by a greater commonality and more for Newton to exert his leadership and peacemaking skills. McConaughey does his valiant best to shade Newton, but Ross’s insistence on presenting Newton as a heroic freedom fighter rather than a multi-dimensional, complex man whose insurrection could be seen as criminal and reckless undermines the actor, the character, and the film.

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  • (RATING: ☆☆☆½)


    In Gary Ross earnest film, Free State of Jones, we follow the true life exploits of Newton Knight, a political activist who fought against the Confederacy in Jones Country, Mississippi. Seeing the death and destruction brought about by the Civil War, Newt (Matthew McConaughey) deserts, leaves his wife (Keri Russell) and child behind, and begins to fight the injustices against the slaves and the poor farmers in his town. Newt hides out in a swamp and befriends other runaway slaves and deserters to form his own army. He also falls in love with a beautiful and educated black slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

    The film tells its history lesson about racial inequality in a very conventional but effective way. Mr. Ross shows the aftermath of war most compellingly, but he plays up the melodramatic aspects too often. He also tries to connect this Civil War tale with a later day foray into one of Knight’s ancestors who also fought discrimination in the late 1940’s. That section of the film is jarringly interspersed with the war saga and never gels. However, it is an interesting footnote that does sideline the predicability of the screenplay by the director and co-writer Leonard Hartman.

    The cast is strong throughout, even if the characters are pure stereotypes. Mr. McConaughey keeps the heroics at a minimum and imbues a believability into his role. Offering fine support in their underdeveloped parts are the aforementioned Ms. Russell and Ms. Mbatha-Raw as his two wives and Mahershala Ali as Moses Washington, a friend and freed slave.

    Free State of Jones comes off as an abridged Reader’s Digest version of a chapter of American history. Its heart is in the right place, even if its mind needed to rethink its narrative. GRADE: B-

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