Free State of Jones was released in theaters on June 24, 2016. Set in the midst of the Civil War, the movie tells the little-known story of Newton Knight, a White Southerner who led a rebellion against the Confederacy. Knight’s unlikely army is compromised of poor Whites and runaway slaves who form their own state independent of the Confederacy.
Like many other Civil War- era movies, FSoJ takes place during a very ugly time in American history. What sets it a part is the fact that this film tells a relatively unknown story of someone who completely bucked the system and led others to do the same, ultimately risking everything.
Another element that makes FSoJ unique is that we see Whites and Blacks living and working together. To those who aren’t history experts (like myself), it is surprising to learn that this not only happened, but it actually lasted throughout Reconstruction and the “emancipation” of slaves.
Matthew McConaughey is fantastic as the defiant Newt Knight. He portrays Knight as a simple, honest and hard-working man who is merely disenchanted with the War and convinced that it has nothing to do with him. He comes to believe that he and countless others are fighting to protect the ideals of the aristocratic Southerners who own land (i.e cotton) and slaves. Upon having this revelation and witnessing the brutal death of a young man, he deserts the War.
Throughout the film, McConaughey delivers compelling speeches to rouse and inspire his comrades. He is also excellent at displaying a silent rage that sometimes threatens to consume him.
The entire cast deliver wonderful performances. One standout is Knight’s lover Rachel played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Concussion). Mbatha-Raw is an extremely talented actress who never fails to impress. Her performance in FSoJ is no exception.
Given the times, the friendship and subsequent romance between Rachel and Knight is obviously illegal. However, for all of their differences, they share a sweet connection between them. Mbatha-Raw and McConaughey had great onscreen chemistry and there was a special tenderness present in all of their scenes together.
Mahershala Ali (Hunger Games: Mockingbird, House of Cards) also delivered a fantastic performance as Moses, a runaway slave who becomes friends with Knight and joins his rebellion. Ali is a talented actor with very expressive eyes.
FSoJ started off being very visually stunning. There are gory scenes from the battlefield and a general sense of uneasiness and urgency in the beginning of the film. A bulk of the film takes place in the swamps, which provide an epic backdrop for the action that takes place. Unfortunately, the film does hit a lull midway through and things begin to feel as though they are dragging on. The film is well over 2 hours and it definitely begins to feel that long.
However, the events of the story do take place over many years. At any rate this is a story so compelling that you may be able to forgive the length. For history and war buffs, the movie is still pretty satisfying.
I enjoyed FSoJ because I have an affinity for history and I like learning about the South (Texas born and raised!). I’m always amazed by the fact that there are stories yet to be told.
Free State of Jones also stars: Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, and Sean Bridgers. It is directed by Gary Ross, who created the script along with Leonard Hartman.