Free State of Jones

by Glenn Erickson Sep 20, 2016

Writer/Director Gary Ross constructs a historical-film miracle: a meaningful true tale about the Civil War that doesn’t bog down in details. Rebel deserter Matthew McConaughey leads a wartime insurrection against both the South and the North. It’s hard to believe that it really happened.

Free State of Jones
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
2016 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 140 min. / Street Date September 20, 2016 / 19.99
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin.
Benoit Delhomme
Film Editor Pamela Martin, Juliette Welfing
Original Music Nicholas Britell
Written by Gary Ross story by Leonard Hartman
Produced by Jon Kilik, Gary Ross, Scott Stuber
Directed by Gary Ross

This is one very good movie about an unusual subject, with committed performances, a handsome production and a screenplay fashioned with intelligence and good judgment. So why are we seeing it on disc barely three months after its theatrical premiere, when I can’t even remember its release? I’m very happy that Free State of Jones was recommended to me, because it’s a meaningful true story about our Civil War that doesn’t overstate its case or succumb to PC banalities. That’s where the good judgment comes in. I feel certain that conservatives grow surly when ‘liberal’ Hollywood decides to once again give the audience a grade school lecture. There was racism and injustice in the South way back when?  That’s no longer news, folks. What else is your movie about?  Free State of Jones puts the historical crimes in a more accurate perspective. Our white hero is in no way an anachronistic fighter for black rights.

When I saw the name Gary Ross on the credits I knew the show would be in good hands — he’s the writer and director of an older favorite, Pleasantville. In a context of racism and injustice Ross’s film takes on issues of patriotism, desertion under fire and open rebellion in defense of hearth and home. Happily, the movie does not endorse or encourage modern-day crazoid secession politics. It just tells the truth about what happened more or less, in four counties of Southeastern Mississippi in 1863 and 1864.

Free State of Jones dares to address the immediate post-surrender years in the heart of Dixie. In 1863 the South is winning battles but losing the war, and is imposing drastic measures on its people. Confederate soldier Newton Knight (Matthew McConnaughey) sees wounded officers treated before enlisted men. Soldiers from the landed gentry are granted service deferments based on how many negro slaves their family owns. Meanwhile, back in Knight’s home, Jones County, army officials are confiscating 90% of civilian crops and stores and forcibly conscripting young boys, including Newton’s nephew. Knight deserts, goes home and tries to protect his neighbors from the unfair policies. In short order he is a wanted man, subject to summary execution. Newton holes up in the swamp with a group of runaway slaves, befriending Moses (Mahershala Ali) and forming a closer relationship with a house slave on a nearby plantation, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Since the local army troops can’t pursue them into the swamp, Knight’s guerilla raids find success. When the Confederacy throws a division against them, Knight appeals to the Union General Sherman in Vicksburg, but the Yankees don’t recognize his rebellion and won’t help. So Knight gets his followers to vote on a radical idea: the several Mississippi counties his ‘troops’ control will be known as The Free State of Jones.

Free State of Jones is not overly grim or wretched. Gary Ross gives us a logical chain of events that shows how a rebellion like this could come about.  Oppress the locals long enough and they’ll rise up: rural folk don’t like outside government to begin with. At one point Newton Knight controls four Mississippi counties, which sounds like a lot until we learn that the state now has 82 counties — they can’t be that big (and there is still one called Jones). The show stages some impressive battle scenes before making Knight into something of a Robin Hood figure, protecting widows and orphans. The loathing and hatred between blacks and whites is lessened when the whites are downtrodden; the pragmatic Knight preaches that his kinfolk ‘are niggers too,’ in that the blacks only pick the planters’ cotton, while the whites willingly die for their economic oppressors. Knight falls in love and has a child with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a black woman. That development is not sensationalized nor is the films’ depiction of white & black teamwork during the rebellion. The arrangement is provisional, temporary: Ross has more class than to show elements of the two races giving each other fist-pumps. The races still bunk down separately (except for Newton and Rachel).

The show 12 Years a Slave may be a good basic primer, but it still makes its strongest arguments through sheer emotion. It expects us to be continually surprised and outraged at the horrors of slavery, while offering little thought about the social forces that brought it about and sustained it.  Free State of Jones doesn’t dodge these complexities but instead shows the plantation owners to be just like many rich folk today, fat cats exercising their privileges and enjoying their entitlements. They aren’t comic book monsters. Jones also doesn’t wallow in overstated scenes of punishment. When a good man is lynched we see the aftermath, which is bad enough. A text title tells us that thousands of blacks were lynched right after the surrender. It’s more than sufficient. We get the message.

Is it fair to praise a historical movie based on what clichés it avoids? This show doesn’t pander to audience prejudices. The rebellion scenes show poor white farmers fighting alongside women and runaway slaves, without calling for a rainbow-diversity-melting pot revolution. A particularly vicious Confederate lieutenant becomes a main adversary for Knight, and writer-director Ross doesn’t set up a lazy vengeance payback theme. Apparently the Free State rebels were not prosecuted after the surrender… too big a segment of the population was actively involved. Likewise, Newton doesn’t cheerlead vengeance against the plantation owners, the rich Southerners that profit from the war but largely do not fight it. The fat cat planter that habitually raped Rachel never suffers. When he moves back into his big house, he finds that little has been disturbed. The Free Staters don’t want a revolution, they just want and end to their misery.

The years after the surrender are a PC minefield for anybody making a movie about the Civil War, as the issues involved are far, far from resolved 160 years later. We’re still screaming about the celebration of racism in two of the most popular American movies ever made, Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind. Ross wades into the awful postwar climate and makes his points with precision. Although the defeated landowners are forced to accept the Emancipation Proclamation, they do an end-run around it with local ‘apprenticeship’ laws that (apparently) allow them to conscript any blacks they want for involuntary labor. Washington finds it necessary to occupy the South under martial law to stop this, but the rise of the Klan is an effective guerilla response: activist blacks trying to register blacks to vote are lynched. Newton Knight must threaten violence to get the locals to let his black friends vote — and then the vote counters cheat anyway.

A narrative invention employed by Gary Ross doesn’t sound like a good idea, but pays off very satisfactorily. The movie skims over a pretty sensational detail — Knight had a white wife and a black wife, living on the same farm together but in different houses. Instead of getting into detail with that, at several junctures the story skips ahead to the 1920s, when Newton and Rachel’s grandson (I think) is brought up on charges of miscegenation, because he 1/8th black and he has illegally married a white woman. It all works well: back in the late 1860s Rachel wants her very light baby to be raised white, so he will suffer less — no anachronistic Black Power posing is needed, as just surviving is a miracle. Without violence or speeches it shows that the South’s intolerable need to punish ‘black blood’ has worsened in the 20th century. Free State of Jones is not ‘Rambo vs. the Crackers.’ It’s entertaining and engaging and takes us in to a corner of history that is quickly being forgotten.

I don’t care if I never see another Matthew McConaughey car commercial, but he’s got the perfect looks and attitude for period pictures. His lean face thinks and broods well; he’s sufficiently wild-eyed to play the mad abolitionist John Brown, if somebody wanted to get really radical. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali offer interesting characterizations in that neither Rachel nor Moses is expected to be an exemplar of their race. Rachel’s meek housemaid cannot go anywhere without a pass. When we first meet Moses he is wearing a grotesque iron punishment collar, that looks as if he must hold it up to keep it from snapping his neck. Neither are the super-black characters of 12 Years a Slave, forward-looking souls that seem to know that justice and Academy Award nominations will follow someday. No, Newton Knight first gains his black comrades’ trust when he admits that circumstances have brought him down to a shared level of misery. The idea of giving blacks some equal rights comes later.

Filmed in Mississippi and Louisiana, Free State of Jones has a great look. Ross and his team of filmmakers do not try to clobber us with bravura filmmaking, as in the emotionally muted Cold Mountain. The storytelling is simple and events are allowed to take on meaning without resorting to ‘ennobling’ visual effects. Good for it… we need intelligent stories now, not mythmaking or empty shouts of injustice.


Universal Studios Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray + DVD + Digital of Free State of Jones is a handsome encoding of this feature barely out of the theaters. If I read the stats well it did not bring in much business, and I doubt that a story of this nature fares well overseas. The package contains a Blu-ray, a DVD copy and a code for a digital download.

The one extra is a long-form piece called The History of Jones County, which stops being a promo after a few seconds and becomes an in-depth piece on the background of the Free State of Jones, profiling who Newton Knight and Rachel were and the specific elements of the rebellion and the reconstruction that affected them. The historians, locals and descendants of the Knights make a good case against the ‘honorable lost cause’ myth, which blurs the fact that the secession was promoted by the rich to maintain an utterly corrupt social order. Some of the details are a bit muted in the behavior of Knights’ army and it is made to seem that the Knight/Rachel family tree is more straightforward than it turned out to be, but we meet some very pleasant descendants that would like to see the black, white and mixed factions of the larger family come together. It sounds like it’s a peaceful dis-union, 150 years later. At 18 minutes, the featurette has no boring speeches and moves at a nice clip.

Is the show suitable for kids? I’d say yes for any young person with the patience to follow the historical details covered, and who isn’t entirely sheltered from violent images. If they’ve seen what’s on TV (not a great idea IMHO) they can probably take the flurry of gore shots in the early battle sequence, including one that I didn’t like much myself. If they like this impressive show, give ’em a taste of Ang Lee’s superb Ride with the Devil, an absorbing tale of the ‘Bleeding Kansas’ warfare that’s excellent history, with more action than your average Spaghetti western. This Smithsonian article by Richard Grant discusses the real historical events behind the movie. Newton Knight’s Free State rebels weren’t saints. They killed or drove out Confederate sympathizers, something not shown in the movie. A quote from the article: “A lot of people find it easier to forgive Newt for fighting Confederates than mixing blood.”

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Free State of Jones
Blu-ray + DVD + Digital rates:
Movie: Very Good + Plus
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: The History of Jones County
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, Spanish
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 19, 2016

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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