Gary Ross’ New Feature Film reviewed in The New York Times
/ The New York Times
“Free State of Jones” begins on the battlefield, with a flurry of the kind of immersive combat action that has long been a staple of American movies. The setting is familiar in other ways, too. As a line of Confederate troops marches across a field into Union rifle and artillery fire, a haze of myth starts to gather over the action, a mist of sentiment about the tragedy of the Civil War and the symmetrical valor of the soldiers on both sides of it. But this is a sly piece of misdirection: The rest of the movie will be devoted to blowing that fog away, using the tools of Hollywood spectacle to restore a measure of clarity to our understanding of the war and its aftermath.
Directed by Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”) with blunt authority and unusual respect for historical truth, “Free State of Jones” explores a neglected and fascinating chapter in American history. Mr. Ross consulted some of the leading experts in the era — including Eric Foner of Columbia University, whose “Reconstruction” is the definitive study, and Martha Hodes of New York University, author of a prizewinning study of interracial sexuality in the 19th-century South — and has done a good job of balancing the factual record with the demands of dramatic storytelling. The result is a riveting visual history lesson, whose occasional didacticism is integral to its power.
The hero of this tale is Newton Knight, a poor farmer from Jones County, Miss., who led a guerrilla army of white deserters and escaped slaves against the Confederacy during the war. Afterward, he tried to hold this coalition together as a political force in the face of Ku Klux Klan terror. As played by Matthew McConaughey, Newton is an ordinary man radicalized by circumstances. His hollow cheeks and wild whiskers suggest a zealous temperament, but the kindness in his eyes conveys the decency and compassion that lie at the heart of his moral commitment.
Mr. McConaughey is too rugged and ragged to sink into saintliness, which is one reason that his righteous characters — including Ron Woodroof in “Dallas Buyer’s Club” and Mick Haller in “The Lincoln Lawyer” — are sometimes more fun than the movies they inhabit. And while Mr. Ross’s story makes Newton unambiguously heroic, this is not yet another film about a white savior sacrificing himself on behalf of the darker-skinned oppressed. Nor for that matter is it the story of a white sinner redeemed by the superhuman selflessness of black people. “Free State of Jones” is a rarer thing: a film that tries to strike sparks of political insight from a well-worn genre template.
It’s a western of sorts, and a romantic rebel movie of sorts — there are hints of “Viva Zapata!” and “Shane” and a half-dozen other underdog classics — but with an unusually clear ideological focus. After fleeing the army, where he had served as a battlefield nurse, and witnessing Confederate authorities confiscating his neighbors’ livestock and grain, Newton takes refuge in a swamp with a small group of slaves who have run away from a nearby plantation, including a man named Moses (Mahershala Ali), who becomes his friend and confidant. Through his conversations with Moses and with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a domestic slave who brings the fugitives news and supplies from the plantation house, Newton comes to believe that the slaves share a common enemy and a common interest with poor white farmers like himself.
“Free State of Jones” is careful not to suggest that the conditions endured by disenfranchised white and enslaved black Mississippians were identical. The system may be rigged against both, but in different ways. Especially after the war, the alliance proves fragile, as white supremacy reasserts itself with renewed brutality. Its persistence is emphasized by a subplot that takes place 85 years after the war in a Mississippi courtroom, where Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), a descendant of Newton’s, is on trial for breaking the state’s law against interracial marriage.
The question of Davis’s racial identity turns on whether he is descended from Rachel or Serena (Keri Russell), Newton’s wife at the beginning of the movie. The romance between a white man and an enslaved black woman is, to say the least, a delicate issue for a movie like this to deal with, but Mr. Ross handles this and other fraught matters with impressive tact and sensitivity. The film does not minimize the violence of slavery, including the sexual violence that was the daily experience of women like Rachel, but it also refrains from turning cruelty into spectacle. Mr. Ross has an old-fashioned faith in the power of editing, and in the ability of the audience to imagine what he refrains from showing explicitly.
Which is not to say that “Free State of Jones” is a subtle movie. Why should it be? There is nothing wrong with a story that has clear heroes and villains, especially when such roles have been misconceived for so long. The wily and charismatic Newton Knight is a revisionist archetype, a white Southern rebel fighting against the mythology that such figures usually embody. He takes down the Stars and Bars and raises Old Glory above his territory; this movie holds no truck with magnolia-scented nonsense about a genteel Southern way of life menaced by Yankee aggression.
It is obvious to Newton, and certainly to Moses, that the Glorious Cause of the Confederacy was a rapacious and exploitative cotton-based capitalist economy, and that the resistance to Reconstruction was intended to restore that system. This view reflects the current scholarly consensus, but much of American popular culture, like much of American politics, remains besotted by the old mythology. Freedom is a long struggle.
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