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Published August 24th 2016
A little known but significant stretch of American civil war history is what the film Free State of Jones attempts to portray in all of 145 minutes. Featuring Matthew McConaughey, the historical war drama has received mixed reviews from critics.
Written and directed by Gary Ross, Free State of Jones pays homage to the legacy of farmer, soldier and Southern Unionist, Newton Knight. The film is loosely based on his rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi. Unlike the big issues of slavery, racism and rebellion that the film broaches, the story line itself is a fictional account.
Newton Knight played by Matthew McConaughey. Source: IMDb
The quasi-historical plot follows Knight as a poor farmer and battlefield medic whose unrest with the Confederacy grows after he realises that farmers' livestock and crops are being appropriated under the guise of taxes. He gains a following of struggling farmers and African-American slaves who stage an armed uprising against the Confederacy.
A quick history review: The Confederacy was composed of secessionist American states that existed between 1861 and 1865 that depended on the labour of African-American slaves. The seven original slave states which comprised the Confederacy were Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Texas. Many of slaves who managed to escape soon joined forces with Knight's rebellion.
Enduring many sieges, Knight and his following triumphantly seize a large area of south-central Mississippi, dubbed the 'Free State of Jones'. After the American Civil War ends, Knight Newton becomes a tireless advocate against racial inequality, helping to free the son of an African-American former slave from a cotton field and playing a key role in securing voting rights for all people, regardless of colour or race.
Capturing the physical and sexual violence that Black American slaves endured, the scenes are oft-times graphically violent, but manage to bring a forgotten figure back to life without shying away from brutality of America's history. The film highlights Knight's role as an advocate for social justice and racial equality. As with any drama worth its salt, Free State of Jones also follows the meandering connection between Knight and a slave girl, Rachel.
Owen Gleiberman from Variety describes the film as "a tale of racial liberation and heroic bloodshed that is designed, at almost every turn, to lift us up to that special place where we can all feel moved by what good liberals we are." Rotten Tomatoes gave it a rating of 43% and critics have noted the use of violence as excessive to the point that it dulls the viewers' reactions.
After viewing Free State of Jones, I can appreciate how the mixed reviews came about. The storyline maintains interest throughout with the right mix of action and drama. There are occasional moments of substandard acting and some rather fanciful scenes. Take for example an ex-wife living happily alongside with her ex-spouse's new lover (a freed African-American slave) and helping to raise the illegitimate child her ex-husband fathered. The likelihood of such a situation in modern times is questionable, let alone during that era. Despite these minor blunders, the film does well to effectively relay an expansive segment of American history in such a short time. If American history, civil war, or even just Matthew McConaughey tickle your fancy, then it is worth watching.