For the most part, this is the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a real-life Confederate deserter and leader of the 'Free State of Jones'. Beginning with Knight's survival of the Battle of Corinth, Free State follows Jones as he returns home to find Confederate tax collectors destroying the livelihood of already-desperate families. After an unwelcome brush with a slave-tracking dog, Knight retreats to the safety of a swamp where he's helped by a group of runaway slaves.
2012's Mud saw McConaughey man play swamp-rat too; the focus here, however, is less on individual resilience than persevering leadership. Hidden away within the confines of the swamp, Knight rallies slaves and deserters into a formidable resistance to the Confederacy, one that eventually founds the eponymous free 'state'.
Knight is a man of redoubtable drive; when racial tensions permeate the group, Knight's luscious southern drawl and magnetic charisma provide the perfect tools for dispute resolution. But Knight is also a near-flawless and somewhat flat character, a musket-brandishing holy man held up on the shoulders of disciples.
As The Free State of Jones progresses, Knight's story becomes a secondary to a run-through of post-Civil War history. The film quickly covers the new 'apprentice' scheme (by which freed slaves continue to be bought and sold), the efforts of the freedmen to win the vote, and the rise of the Klu Klux Clan. There's also the occasional flash-forward to the Mississippi court case of Knight's great- great-great grandson, Davis Knight, who as a 1/8th black descendant faces the threat of his interracial marriage becoming void.
Unfortunately the decision to crowbar in all this history comes very much at the expense of whatever dramatic interest there was. Any sense of meaningful plot is lost as character-arcs are sacrificed to a showcase of historically significant moments. Free State is the kind of film you can imagine a classroom of American children falling asleep to as their teacher desperately catches up on the marking. It does its pedagogical job, hammering home its themes of struggle and social imbalance prevalent in U.S. history, but these are themes that perhaps only small school children are unaware of.
With the help of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, McConaughey and his fellow cast members afford the film a definite lift. But in spite of this, and of the incredible history behind the story, Free State of Jones manages little more than a lacklustre attempt to moralise.
|Free State of Jones film review
|Various Locations | MAP
|Leicester Square (underground)
09 Sep 16 – 09 Nov 16, Times vary
|£determined by cinema