When it comes to movies about the Civil War, the side that usually gets short shrift is the Confederacy, because the winners, not the losers, tell the history. But this inadvertently lumps all Southerners into a monolithic racist group, with little, if any, nuance given to Confederate characters.
Free State of Jones attempts to change that perception through the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate medical worker who deserts the army in order to bring his dead nephew home to be buried. Once he arrives home, he also witnesses a band of Confederate soldiers robbing the women and children left behind as a way to keep the front lines supplied with food and clothes.
Already a conscientious objector to slavery, Knight uses resentment over the treatment of lower class citizens by the army, and the very idea of slavery, to grow his own group of rebels within Jones County, Mississippi and the surrounding area. That group proceeds to protect their land and their people at all costs, forcing the army to fight a war on two fronts.
What at first appears to be another story about a white man being a savior for African-Americans ends up being nothing of the sort. An early look at Knight’s interactions with slaves, including a romantic one with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), yields to a somewhat more conventional story of class warfare among white people.
As more and more soldiers desert, the small group of slaves that initially helped Knight fades into the background, save for Rachel and Moses (Mahershala Ali), the most strong-willed of the bunch. More troubling in a storytelling sense, though, is the scattershot approach of writer/director Gary Ross. Instead of keeping a tight focus on one story, he gradually loosens the reins, and the movie runs wild.
This is never more evident than with the haphazard insertion of scenes 85 years later, when Knight’s great-grandson is being denied his right to marry because he is determined to be 1/8 African-American. Ross appears to be making some larger point about the continued existence of racism well after the emancipation of slaves, but the side story is clunky and takes away greatly from the main story.
McConaughey is fine as Knight, although it’s a far cry from his other recent award-winning roles. Whether it’s real or fake, his abomination of a beard distracts from his acting instead of enhancing his character. Mbatha-Raw lends a nice touch to a role that’s not usually as multifaceted as she ends up making it.
Free State of Jones makes a few solid points about the prejudgment of others and racism in general, but as a pure moviegoing experience, it lacks depth and emotion.