Free State of Jones (R)

Based on a true story, Free State of Jones is a civil war action drama starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a Southern farmer who leads an armed rebellion against the Confederacy with other farmers and local slaves.  Knight launched an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy (as you might imagine, an odds-defying task), creating the “Free State of Jones.”  Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction – standing up for the rights of “allegedly” freed slaves and poor farmers, distinguishing him as a controversial figure of defiance.

The most important things I took away from this movie was being reminded how one person (even though they may need plenty of support) really can make a difference and thinking, what a world we could live in if we all just learned to respect one another as people.  If only…

Aside from that, the problem I had with the film (and it took me a while to figure it out) is that it lacked emotional depth.  It seemed like a bit too much artistic license was used to bring the historical content to life and not enough attention was paid to portraying the emotional bonds between these characters.  There is a distinct bite to the writing that politicizes the characters heavily, taking away from their “human-ness.”  Granted, the film was largely about politics; but I didn’t feel the emotion of the characters who were supposed to care for one another, not even during the kindest of acts toward one another.  I never got the sense that Knight was particularly enamored with Rachel (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw).  She just kind of happened to be there.  There is not even a kiss shown between them.  After Knight helps a slave named Moses (played by Mahershala Ali), I didn’t feel they were much more connected than they were before the incident.  Until certain lines are uttered or specific scenes or crises arise do we learn about the shifts in the relationships.  The viewer gets no visual evidence that the relationships had grown in any way, and this is where the movie falls short.  The villains were much more convincing, but, of course, they didn’t have emotional bonds to nurture.  All they had to do was be unlikable; and they were.

What is unique about the movie is that it shows how tough conditions were for freed slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation was enacted.  There were still many loopholes in many local laws that made it nearly impossible for former slaves to exercise their rights and freedoms, and, shamefully, the Ku Klux Klan was allowed to run rampant and leave a swath of hateful destruction wherever and whenever they pleased.  As we all know, writing something down on a piece of paper and calling it a law does little to change people’s attitudes and beliefs.  That is where the real work lies.

Simultaneously, there is a story being told of one of Knight’s descendants and the trial he goes through some 85 years later. I suppose the point was not only to show the historical connection, but to some way imply that the strength of Knight had somehow genetically been passed down to his descendant and the descendant’s act of defiance was somehow equivalent to his ancestor’s.  I understand the connection and see the relevance of telling both stories; they just weren’t integrated well enough to get the point across clearly.  I got a feeling that the work put into the story of Knight’s descendant could have been scrapped and more work could have been put into strengthening the story of Knight’s rebellion.  One well-told story would have been preferable to including more information just for the sake of including more information.

The cast does a good job and most importantly (to me), the fingernails were dirty and the whitened teeth were adequately sullied.  The one detail which was overlooked was that the men’s hands needed a bit of makeup for “roughness.” Constructing shelters and working the land does not add up with smooth, scar free hands.

Overall, Free State of Jones earned 7 out of 10 bloops. It is a story that is worth telling, but due to the film’s emotional shortcomings, I wouldn’t recommend anyone run and pay to see it.  It was good, but it certainly could have been better.  It is definitely worth a look on cable or a streaming service.

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