An ex-Confederate organizes a rebellion in southeastern Mississippi during the American Civil War and continues to battle for equal rights for freedmen during Reconstruction in Free State of Jones (2016), written and directed by Gary Ross. The film alternates between the 1860s and a 1948 miscegenation trial, to the detriment of both. Free State of Jones bombed at the box office and received mixed reviews from critics.
The film begins at the Battle of Corinth in northeastern Mississippi, October 3-4, 1862, in which Confederate forces under Maj. Gen. Earl Van Dorn attempted to dislodge Union forces commanded by Maj. Gen. William Rosecrans from fortifications around the town of Corinth. Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a medical orderly in the Confederate army from Jones County, a predominantly poor area with few slaves.
Knight is disgruntled to learn of a Confederate law that allows sons of plantation owners to avoid military service depending on the number of slaves his family owns. This was designed to guard against slave uprisings, but it angered some poor whites who believed they were fighting a “rich man’s war”. When Knight returns the body of his nephew Daniel (Jacob Lofland) to his home county, he learns that Confederate Captain Elias Hood (Thomas Francis Murphy) is excessively confiscating goods from the local population.
Things get complicated when Knight meets and falls in love with a slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), despite being married to Serena (Keri Russell). He fights back against the tax collectors and hides out in the swamp, where he meets fugitive slaves and befriends Moses (Mahershala Ali). Together with other deserters, they successfully rebel against the Confederacy and proclaim a Free State of Jones. After the war, freed slaves struggle against a segregationist South.
The events of the Civil War era and after are interwoven with the 1948 miscegenation trial of one of Knight’s descendants, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), a product of his affair with Rachel. The Mississippi Supreme Court eventually overturned Davis’ conviction, but this postscript to the story seems out of place in the larger narrative. It would have been better to briefly show the trial as an epilogue, or have the whole film about the trial with flashbacks to the events of the 1860s. Instead, Free State of Jones feels like two films awkwardly smashed together.
Still, Free State of Jones features some solid performances. Matthew McConaughey needs no introduction. He transformed himself from teen heartthrob to accomplished actor, starring in films like Dallas Buyers Club (2013) and TV shows like True Detective. In 2016, he also played the lead role in Gold. McConaughey performed admirably in Free State of Jones, although his transition from combat orderly to brilliant guerrilla leader is less than convincing.
Mahershala Ali, an African American actor from California, has appeared steadily in film and television since the early 2000s, most notably as Boggs in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay parts one and two. Though forced to play second fiddle to McConaughey in Free State of Jones, Ali brings to life his fictional character and personifies the plight of politically active freedmen following the Civil War.
Free State of Jones is not a strict retelling of history, but it remains faithful to events writer/director Gary Ross wanted to portray. Much of Newton Knight’s complicated personal life was simplified for the screen, and the scene depicting a handful of Confederates attacking a Union position while Knight and his nephew try to flee was unrealistic. This and other inaccuracies are relatively minor.
It’s a shame this film fell flat, because the American Civil War is such a rich period of history with so many compelling stories to tell. For some reason it’s been difficult for Hollywood to get it right. Glory (1989), which won three academy awards, shows it’s possible to create a compelling and popular drama set during the Civil War. Free State of Jones unfortunately missed the mark.