Free State of Jones (2016)
Historical dramas can be risky: if you get the history right the drama can suffer or if you get the drama right the history suffers. Try getting both and you may get neither. This is the case with The Free State of Jones (2016). Like many films about American folk heroes, it is a tale that celebrates rugged individualism in one man’s battle against overwhelming odds, but it’s emphasis on entertainment is at the expense of historical insight and political perspective.
The narrative covers historical events in Jones County, Mississippi during the American Civil War of the 1860s interspersed with a 1950s courtroom drama. Based loosely on real events, it depicts the life of legendary Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey) who deserted the battlefield with the Confederate Army and formed a militia that declared the Free State of Jones. Motivated by the injustice of military exemptions for the wealthy, the massive loss of life in protecting the assets of the rich, and the rampant bigotry of slavery, Knight rose to become a Robin Hood figure who stopped the Confederates from stripping farms to supply troops in battle. Hunted as a traitor, he survived the war hiding in impenetrable swampland and later continued his civil rights advocacy.
On a chapter by chapter basis, the film is a great adventure story but its structure defies historical logic with piecemeal timeframes, narrative threads left hanging, and little if any causal interpretation of the larger tide of history. This patchwork montage is complicated by frequent flash-forwards to a descendant of Knight on trial for marrying a white woman while being of one-eighth African American descent.
McConaughey has a commanding if not convincing presence, while the period sets, costumes, battles and sub-plots are produced to high standards. The film is action rather than character-driven, and the many dramatic embellishments humanise a period piece based on Civil War history. Knight’s script often has him sounding like a messiah, interrupted by his remorseless willingness to destroy those who threatened him or his followers. At two hours and nineteen minutes the film calls for more editing, and the time spent on melodrama is at the expense of a better paced story. Little attention is paid to the historical impact of the breakaway “Free State of Jones” despite its centrality to the narrative. The film aspires to epic-grade cinema but settles for adventure entertainment with convoluted timeframes that distract rather than illuminate.
Director: Gary Ross
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw