Free State of Jones
by Bobby Blakey
Some of the most interesting and powerful stories to hit film are usually those based on actual historical events. Sure a lot of them are embellished in some fashion but to know things like this happened is amazing in and of itself. The latest Free State of Jones takes on a different side of the Civil War and features a great cast including Matthew McConaughey, Keri Russell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Mahershala Ali, but does it pack that much needed power to get sell the importance of the time or will it be a war not worth fighting?
Free State of Jones follows defiant Southern farmer, Newt Knight, and his extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy. Banding together with other small farmers and local slaves, Knight launched an uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy, creating a Free State of Jones. Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, distinguishing him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance long beyond the War. This is one of those historical stories that while based on an actual individual is not totally the real story. This is mostly due to the fact that Newton was a controversial figure who was branded an outlaw to some and hero to others and the actions of his Knight Company constantly disputed. Whether the film is totally true or not it does take viewers into a time in history that was happening and one that no doubt had many rising up to try and fight against not only slavery but the oppression of the government on the people. This film wastes no time in pointing out the horrors of the Civil War with the opening sequence being graphic and bloody both on the battlefield and in their makeshift war hospital, but it’s off the actual battlefield where this film takes the fight. Seeing the focus shift to how they looted the farms of the people for their war supplies is an idea hard for us to grasp these days, but being reminded will just tick you off.
On the other side of this story is that of the slaves still struggling for their freedom, but instead of just showcasing the slaves abuse it steps out and shows their actual fight and the brotherhood formed between both white and black in this new union. This section of the film moves a bit slow at times as it showcases the building of this union and while effective it tends to step away from some of the personal bonding moments right as they begin to build. This takes away from some of seeing the importance of their friendship that comes full circle in a sequence toward the end that is hard to watch if you fully invest in what happened. McConaughey has been on a bit of a role as of late with some truly great performances and this one is no different. He brings so much struggle and emotional pain to this role that you fully believe in the cause. The rest of the cast all deliver the same helping you to not just believe in their fight and passion because it is the right thing, but also because of their struggles for freedom.
The story following their fight against the Confederacy works pretty well with the exception of some of the quick cuts, but there is another segment that while does have a point just doesn’t fit in all that well. There are some flash forward moments that is meant to showcase the continuing struggles of what Knight’s family line continued to fight for, but they just feel out of place. It is something that might have worked had they tagged it onto the end of the film as a follow up, but instead they are littered around the film and continue to take you out of the importance of the current story. These flash forward moments are never all that powerful other than what the story itself is and hence feel like a waste of time overall. These moments throw off the pacing of the film at times and screw up the flow of an otherwise great film. In addition there are random real still photos used to jump the story ahead in history and while do serve a purpose just feel out of place in the execution. They are necessary for the story telling, but there could have been a better way to use them.
In the end this overall film does deliver a great message and story that is compelling and powerful. The missteps with throw some off no doubt, but of you can see what the filmmaker was trying to accomplish you can look past it to the real success here in the main story. There are some truly great speeches and character moments here both good and bad that will no doubt elicit a reaction from the viewer like any great movie should. Films like this rarely get the focus or box office they deserve usually because people either don’t want to learn more about history or reminded about the horrors of our past, but this is an important film that needs to be seen.