Free State of Jones, 2016
Directed by Gary Ross
Free State of Jones tells the little known story about a group of runaway and slaves during the American Civil War. Led by Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier who deserted, he grows this community and form an armed rebellion against the Confederates.
To be honest, Free State of Jones left me feeling not too much while walking out the theatre. I felt more appreciation for the facts it told than admiration for the story it told. What I mean is, Free State of Jones touched on a lot of interesting parts of history that I hadn't seen told on screen before, however it could've been told much more cinematically.
The first half of this film tells of Newton Knight deserting the war to deliver a young boy's body back home to his mother, the same hometown Newton is from. Already fed up with the war, he starts to empower the women who are left behind and grows frustrated that the Confederate soldiers are taking much more than the "10 percent" of homeowners food and clothing. He becomes such a nuisance in the community that he must flee and joins a small community of escaped slaves in the swamps of Mississippi. From there, the community grows into more than just escaped slaves. It becomes other men who deserted the war and others who are tired of the Confederates and want to join in a rebellion against them. Much of this is well told, and we see our characters grow and relate to one another. Newton grows close with Rachel, a woman who is a housemaid but is a large part of the resistance.
However, the second half of the film seems to try to cover too much time and doesn't concentrate enough on any point. It just sort of hop-skips to different "interesting" points without too much character develop or growth or even narrative (besides the onscreen captions telling us what happens) in between. That being said, the points they do lead to are interesting. They are parts little told about after the war and the tensions in the south after the Emancipation given by Lincoln. However, it almost seems like a montage of "important" moments that just happen to feature the same few set of characters. It's just a shame that there couldn't be a better overall narrative. While many historical films often seem to care more about their characters and their stories, this movie seems to have overcompensated. It seems to care too much about the facts and is less focused on building a good narrative or character development.
However, much good can still be said about this film. Matthew McConaughey gives a worthy performance as Newton. A sort of Robin Hood character, Newton is kind but fierce and McConaughey nails the balance. And I don't mean to undercut the character of Rachel in the above description. She is a great behind the scenes force in this rebellion. She starts by feeding the small band of escaped slaves and Newton, providing them with small knives and food. Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives such emotion to Rachel. An actress who deserves much bigger roles than she's been getting is a force of gracious strength.
As well, while the narrative could've been better, the inclusiveness of everyday religious language that likely would've been commonplace back then was very well done. There was much more talk of God and Jesus, and having characters state "no one can own a Child of God" seemed much more appropriate than some other historical films are often written. As a Christian, it was encouraging to see that this film didn't shy away from that, and it felt much more authentic because of that.
Overall, like I mentioned in the beginning, I neither really liked nor really disliked Free State of Jones. I have much appreciation for the parts of history they decided to tell. The film had a lot of potential, and even reached it at points, but it's a film that would've been much better suited to be told in a TV mini-series than a two-and-a-half hour film.