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.
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.
|What||Free State of Jones film review|
|Where||Various Locations | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Leicester Square (underground)|
09 Sep 16 – 09 Nov 16, Times vary
|Price||£determined by cinema|