“The Free State of Jones” is the newest war movie to hit the silver screen. And it’s a summer release, imagine that. The movie was written and directed by Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”). It was filmed in the film-friendly state of Louisiana because we have some nice swamps and tremendous tax breaks. (Who needs educational funding?) It is based on the true story of Newton Knight and the secession of Jones County from the Confederacy during the Civil War.
The movie opens with an ominous reference to the fact that the movie will cover the period from 1862-1876 - the Civil War and Reconstruction. The movie begins with a short snippet of the Battle of Corinth, but it is combatus interruptus as we get the march to but not the payoff. Newton Knight’s (Matthew McConaughey) job is to haul the wounded to the hospital. A point is made that officers get preferential treatment. This is part of the theme that “it’s a rich man’s war, and a poor man’s fight”. Newt and his comrades are particularly incensed with the “Twenty Negro Law” that exempted slaveowners from conscription. When his nephew arrives at the front, he decides they will escape by sneaking into no man’s land in broad daylight. If this is not silly enough, their plot is foiled by three soldiers who want them to join in a bayonet charge! The death of the nephew causes Newt to return home, easily. Back at Jones County, Rebel soldiers are confiscating property and being dicks about it. Lt. Barbour (Brad Carter) channels Bosie from “Cold Mountain”. He’s a pretty lame opponent, unfortunately.
When Newt’s son has a fever, he is cured by a slave woman named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Suddenly, it appears the projectionist has put on the wrong reel because we are in a court room 85 years later for a very brief taste of a descendant of Knight on trial for being black and married to a white woman. After this brief, bizarre side trip, it’s back to the Civil War. Because he stands up to the confiscators, Kinight has to take refuge in the swamps where he joins some runaway slaves and bonds with a Moses (Mahershala Ali). Rachel keeps them supplied and there is some more bonding, naturally. The fall of Vicksburg results in more deserters joining them. Newt organizes them into a guerrilla band. Another theme is that the poor farmers are in the same boat with the slaves. There is a nifty skirmish at a church that leads up to a battle to take the town of Ellisville. This results in the declaration of “The Free State of Jones”. Article #4 – “every man is a man”. When the war ends, Moses works to register blacks to vote and Newt supports his efforts. The Ku Klux Klan makes an appearance.
I give “The Free State of Jones” credit for bringing an interesting, little known story to the masses. It reminded me of “Defiance” (a superior movie) in several aspects. I have read a lot on the Civil War, but I was not familiar with this story. As I will point out, the movie is admirably accurate, if unrealistic. The acting is average. McConaughey sucked up most of the budget for salaries so the rest of the cast is unknowns except for the underused Keri Russell as his morose wife. The movie is essentially a biopic (more than a war movie) and McConaughey is in virtually every scene. He plays Newt as a grim saint. (He rebuilds the church by himself.) There is not a lot of emotional range on display. When his son returns after five years, there’s nary a hug. The dialogue is terse and occasionally pious. For every nongraphic, brief action scene, we get a religious reference. This criticism is diluted by the fact that Knight was very religious.
The movie is competently made. The soundtrack is not bombastic and actually is not noticeable. There is some showy camerawork of the close-up, spin around the head to show confusion variety. The sets are fine. You can certainly find places in Louisiana that take you back to the 1860s. The problem is with the screenplay. I have absolutely no problem with long movies, but this movie is too long. The movie builds to the declaration of statehood and then fizzles. It tacks on the Reconstruction sequence which does bring some closure to the black rights arc, but is not satisfying enough to justify it. The flash-forwards to the court case may have seemed like a creative way to show how things had not changed in 85 years, but they just don’t work and break the flow of the narrative.
I have a soft spot for movies that bring light to interesting historical obscurities, so I cannot be too harsh on “The Free State of Jones”. It flubbed an opportunity, but at least we now know the story. And thankfully, the script did not have McConaughey saying “Our rights, our rights, our rights”.
GRADE = C
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Newton Knight is a controversial figure and some of his actions are legendary. Obviously, Ross chose sources that were positive. The negative sources could best be described as racist. With that said, the script could have made Knight less saintly. In fact, the movie is very light on conflict. There are only cursory racial tensions among the deserters and runaways in the swamp. And although Jones County was a likely anti-secession area (only 12% of its people were slaves and the county voted 374-24 against secession), the movie would have you believe no one felt that Knight and his band were traitors.
Knight was religious, anti-slavery, anti-secession, and pro-Union. However, he was not conscripted as the movie implies, but volunteered for the army. One source claims he was enthusiastic about soldiering. He became an orderly working with the wounded and was at the siege of Corinth. He did desert, but there was no nephew involved. His reason (and that of his right hand man, Jasper Collins) was the infamous “Twenty Negro Law” which exempted slaveowners from conscription. The movie does a good job highlighting the resentment of some poor soldiers toward the dominant and privileged planter class. However, soldiers from Jones County would not have been typical as most Rebel soldiers supported the slave system. Upon returning home, Knight became acquainted with the depredations of the “tax in kind” policy. The movie accurately depicts how farmers would be plundered of livestock and supplies. Early in 1863, Knight was captured for desertion and probably tortured. His farm was destroyed. Deserters like Knight responded with looting and killing, presumably of pro-secessionists. A Maj. McLemore (Col. Murphy in the film) arrived and started hunting down the deserters, capturing over one hundred. McLemore was killed in bed, most likely by Knight. Knight and his ilk encamped in the swamp at a place they called “Devil’s Den”. Slaves like Rachel helped supply them. Knight’s group became known as the Jones County Scouts and he was unanimously elected leader. It is unclear how many of the unit were runaways, but it definitely was more of an anti-secession than anti-slavery group. The movie probably overplays the poor whites are in the same boat as slaves theme, although Knight himself apparently believed this.
There was a skirmish at a church. It is highly unlikely that it started with a grieving widow shooting a Rebel soldier in the head. There was a lot of Hollywood in that scene. The Jones County Scouts conducted a guerrilla war that caught the attention of the Confederate government. They gained control of the town of Ellisville, but there was no battle in the streets. The Free State of Jones was proclaimed. A Col. Lowry came with two regiments and quelled the rebellion by hanging ten and forcing the rest to take refuge in the swamps. When Lowry withdrew, the guerrilla activities resumed. The last recorded action was a skirmish at Sal’s Battery in Jan., 1865 won by Knight’s men.
During Reconstruction, Knight supported the carpetbagger government. This made him unpopular with many whites. He did go on raids to free black kids still being held in slavery, but the Moses character is fictional. Later, he was appointed head of a militia regiment of blacks to combat the Ku Klux Klan. In his personal life, he had taken up with Rachel and had five kids with her as his common law wife. Also living on the farm was his wife Serena who he had nine kids with. They were never divorced. He established a small, mixed race community that left him ostracized from white society and accounts partly for the negativity of some sources. The subplot of his great-grandson’s trial for miscegenation is accurate.