Free State of Jones is kind of a mess of a movie, the kind of film that never seems to have quite decided what it wanted to be. At times, it felt like a docu-drama. At times it was more like a melodrama; at times it felt like classical tragedy. It employs a framing story set 80 years after the main story it tells, but it uses that frame very oddly, and starts it much too late for it to be terribly effective. I saw it with my wife, my daughter, and a sister-in-law, and afterwards, we went to lunch, and spent an enjoyable half hour tearing the movie apart. While also agreeing that, with all its flaws, it had affected us deeply. We found the history the film described completely fascinating. But we also weren’t sure how much of the movie’s version of that history could be trusted.
Newton Knight was certainly a real guy, and as played by Matthew McConaughey, a charismatic and fascinating character. He was a farmer from Jones County Mississippi, conscripted to fight in the American Civil War. He served as a nurse, apparently because he was strong enough to carry wounded soldiers from the battlefield to those horrific civil war surgical tents. The movie begins with a line of southern soldiers marching stolidly to their deaths. A union skirmish line cuts them down. The bloody battle scenes are graphic and ferocious, and set up the rest of the movie; we wouldn’t want to fight back then either, and would do whatever we could to get out of it. And so does Newton, especially after a young family member dies in his arms. He deserts. And helps neighbors fight off Confederate teams who go from farm to farm, stealing crops for the war effort.
Eventually, Newton is sufficiently notorious an outlaw that he has to go into hiding, in the swampland of the Mississippi delta. Also on the lam, a number of escaped slaves. And Newton, already disposed to treat his black neighbors with courtesy and respect, makes friends, especially with an educated slave, Moses (Mahershala Ali), who becomes his close friend. He also becomes ever closer to a black woman healer, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who he eventually marries, his first (white) wife, Serena (Keri Russell), having left him.
We also cut back and forth to a modern (1940s) Mississippi trial, in which a Knight descendant, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is tried for having entered into an illegal marriage to a white girl. Davis is accused of being one eighth black, and thus a Negro ineligible to marry anyone white. We cut back to the incidents of that trial on, perhaps, three other occasions.
Back to the civil war past, however, Knight eventually organizes his neighbors (many of whom have also deserted), and escaped slaves into an army. And they secede from the secession; declare themselves the Free State of Jones, with by-laws prohibiting rich men from profiting from the labor of the poor, and also outlawing slavery. (This is, ultimately, a film about the history of Southern race relations, but almost as much, it’s a film about social class. Knight was more a class warrior than a racial provocateur). Knight proves himself an effective guerilla leader, until finally he raises enough fuss that the Mississippi and Confederate authorities have to send a full regiment to deal with him. At which point, he and his men melt back into the swamp, where cavalry can’t follow them and infantry won’t. A few of his men are caught and hanged; most get away scott-free.
Those incidents make up perhaps the first two thirds of the movie; maybe a little less. The rest of the movie covers the end of the war, Reconstruction, the fight for voting rights, and the return of Knight’s first wife. (He welcomes her home, and builds her a cabin on his property, while his beloved Rachel remains with him in the main house). All this is handled episodically, with the story continuity provided in titles.
In short, we have essentially three movies. One is an exciting action movie, about Knight and his rebellion against the confederacy. The second is a story closer to our age, about a trial, in which a Knight descendent has to prove he has the mettle of his grandpappy. The third is a docudrama, in which we dramatize a few random incidents after the civil war; interesting incidents, to be sure, and tragic ones, as the history of the state of Mississippi is inherently tragic and dreadful.
I liked all three movies a lot. I found them all fascinating. They don’t mesh together very effectively, but that didn’t matter much to me. But it might to other viewers. It’s a terrific history lesson, even if the history can’t be entirely trusted. Who was Newton Knight actually?
The first thing I did when I got home from the movie was look up the Wikipedia article for Newton Knight. If that source can be trusted, then yes, the movie took some liberties with the story. It made his army bigger than it probably already was, and showed them as being more militarily successful. And, of course, Newton Knight is a contested figure in American history and Confederate history. Apparently, there’s a good, scholarly book about Knight by historian Victoria Bynum. I’ve ordered it on Amazon, and intend to read it when it arrives.
And I think that captures the impact of this movie more than anything. The story is fascinating. The acting is beyond superb. The filmmaking is stylistically inconsistent, but I also didn’t much care. But the history! My goodness! It’s a very interesting movie, and one I’m very glad to have seen. It’s also not a cinematic masterpiece. Let that be my recommendation.