Film Review: FREE STATE OF JONES
FREE STATE OF JONES
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers
Directed by Gary Ross
Written by Gary Ross
Story by Gary Ross and Leonard Hartman, based on a true story
Produced by Gary Ross, Scott Stuber, Jon Kilik
Co-Producer, Diana Alvarez
Director of photography, Benoit Delhomme
Production designer, Philip Messina
Edited by Juliette Welfling Pamela Martin
Costume designer, Louise Frogley
Music by Nicholas Britell
In 1863, Newton Knight, a principled, brave and ultimately epically heroic poor farmer and reluctant Confederate medic from Jones County, Mississippi, deserted from the Southern army, hid in the swamps with runaway slaves, and, subsequently, eventually, recruited a large ragtag—but strong, forceful, dedicated and committed—renegade citizens army of Southern deserters, slaves, farmers, war widows, children and others who were against slavery, against secession, against the war, and who actually won decisive battles against Confederate soldiers and flat-out drove the Rebel soldiers right out of three Mississippi counties! And that is indeed a true story. Alas, it’s a true story that during the last one-hundred and fifty-three years has rarely been told, rarely been told correctly, is barely known even to the most hardcore Civil War buffs, and, on some levels, remained under-researched and under-documented—until the last ten years, with much of that studious, focused academic research culminating in the superb, strong and instantly memorable, remarkable and highly-recommended film “Free State of Jones,” which, along with Steven Spielberg’s “The BFG” (due out on July 1, 2016) can be accurately noted as the best films so far released in 2016.
“Free State of Jones” is a remarkable, impressive and inspirational film on many levels: for its many noble, honorable themes and messages on heroism, bravery, courage, honor, race, slavery, war, integration, race relations, racism, prejudice, violence and the many sins and corruption and dark periods of American history; for its many moral, historical, cultural, societal, racial and sociological lessons; for, simply, telling an astonishing, interesting, incredibly valuable and important historical story that has, again, rarely been told; for its lessons told from stories that occurred in the 1860s and 1940s, yet remain as valuable and important in 2016 as they have ever been; and for its filmic qualities that excel at every level—strong, direct, honest and unflinching direction from the always-talented and intelligent director Gary Ross; wonderfully researched and detailed period production design, including carefully, diligently detailed and authentic costumes, uniforms, sets, houses, plantations, weapons, fighting scenes, war scenes, and swamp, field, farm and city scenes and sets all always instilling their time period in 1860s and 1870s; and an excellent cast that shines in difficult, emotional, gut-wrenching and challenging character roles and portrayals.
Matthew McConaughey turns in an acting performance as impressive as his Academy Award-winning work in “Dallas Buyers Club” as Newton, or Newt, Knight, all fiery, impassioned, emotional diligence, caring, bravery, courage and honor as a renegade leader whose every move could result in his death if he is caught. But Knight carries on, not for money or fame or greed or glory, of course, but because he is fighting for what he believes in, what he knows is right, and what he knows is the only proper, honorable issue to fight for—true freedom, not just for the slaves suffering at the hands of psycho planation lunatics, but for the poor white farmers and businessmen who have no slaves, who oppose slavery, who oppose succession, and who oppose the war and the Confederacy—and they did indeed exist. They most definitely defiantly existed alongside Newt Knight in Jones County, as Knight courageously, skillfully, thoughtfully—and fairly and honestly, it should be noted—recruited his army by showing them how corrupt, criminal, unfair, moronic—and downright stupid and literally psycho—the Confederate army was, as generals and soldiers routinely savaged the poor Mississippi residents’ land, stripping their property of provisions, cattle, pigs, food and even possessions needed for everyday life.
Knight and his neighbors—many of whom were longtime friends and fellow farmers, none of whom owned slaves or even had the money to buy a slave—bound together, first in the swamps where the Rebs couldn’t reach them without being slaughtered, and then right out in the open, establishing supply chains, supply runs, Union contacts, sympathetic Confederate confederates, spies, soldiers, suppliers and financiers. They amassed a renegade army that was unmatched in Civil War history—a ragtag, non-Confederate-military, non-Confederate-government, non-Union-military, non-Union-government army of men, women and children who, once again, just so it’s clear, actually fought and defeated Confederate soldiers in three Mississippi counties during the heart of the Civil War! Thus, they became what they called the “free state of Jones,” aligning with no one, basically becoming their own state, country, military, government and republic! Knight even drafted his own set of freedom- and civil rights-oriented rules and codes of ethics—a visionary, illuminating action—and even openly supported integration, inter-marriage and a mixed community of whites and blacks.
The Rebs didn’t have the muscle, money, provisions, weapons or men to wage a full-scale assault, initially, on Knight and his army when they were in the swamps. And as Knight’s group grew in power, prestige and success, the Rebs couldn’t find them out in the open, in the fields, at the farms or in the towns. It was only toward the end of the war when the Confederates finally decided to go after Knight and his military and republic with a full force of a thousand men—but the Rebels were too late, and the war ended, leaving the South in the cluttered, confusing, corrupt chaos of the still-racist and still-dangerous South of the Reconstruction, complete with lynchings, burnings, murders, beatings, the Ku Klux Klan, corrupt laws that hid racism in plain sight, and, often, still-open racism, prejudice and segregation.
Then, remarkably, during this corrupt, racist and still-violent, so-called Reconstruction period after the war ended in 1865, Knight amazed everyone—his supporters and his enemies—and his legacy continued to grow: Still angry and bitter about the continued racism, corruption and violence after the war, in what was supposed to be a new time for everyone, Knight became a fighter for equal rights, civil rights, freedom, integration and the rights of blacks and freedmen! Knight openly lived with a black woman who was a freed slave, helped with organizing freedmen and their early civil rights struggles (pre-dating the civil rights struggles of the 1960s by ninety years), fought for open elections, fought against racism, and helped establish freedman schools and educational programs! All of this, too, is a true story! If Knight seems larger than life, or too heroic, it’s only because he was larger than life and heroic—but what makes his story, and the film “Free State of Jones” so powerful is that Knight’s story is absolutely true!
Ross researched, studied (literally studied), documented, and interviewed Knight’s story for ten years—working as much as a documentarian, journalist, scholar and academic as he worked as a filmmaker. Ross consulted with a troop of academic professors, American history experts, scholars and historians. Working with the professors and historians, they unearthed documents and records related to Knight’s story. They interviewed descendants of Knight, gaining access to important family documents and archives. They visited Knight’s and his common-law black wife’s home counties and gravesites. They visited military fight sites that were part of Knight’s story and battle. They traveled the back country of Mississippi, uncovering important historical evidence, documents and papers that supported and verified historical aspects of Knight’s story.
During some of the research on the story, one of Ross’ academic colleagues, historian Jim Kelly, a professor of American history at Jones County Junior College, uncovered the fact that his own great-great grandfather was Newt Knight’s cousin, making Kelly himself a descendant, according to the film’s studio production notes! How’s that for authenticity in research! You can’t get much closer to the truth than that! “It’s been a personal journey as well,” Kelly said. “And once I find out who he is, I really come to admire him and respect him.”
“Jim combed the archives, reading every correspondence, news accounts, official records, etc., turning over nuggets that are not only groundbreaking regarding Newt butfor students of the Civil War era,” says Ross, according to the studio. Kelly observes, “Newt’s story had been buried so deep and had been spun in so many different ways that generations knew very little about what really happened, and who Newt really was. Inspired by Ross’s own research and passion, once we started digging deeper, we started to see a man more complex and principled than previously believed. He took a moral stand, fought for the rights of all people, and came down on the right side of history, as we now see.”
“Ross was intrigued with the larger than life character who had fought on behalf of his fellow poor white yeoman farmers and for African-Americans as well—a completely heretical endeavor in its day,” according to the studio.
“Newt was such a progressive forward-thinking individual and totally unique in his own era,” Ross says. “Once Newt heard a truth, he couldn’t un-hear that truth. He saw the inequity in what he perceived to be a war over slavery, for the slave-owning classes. He fought a rebellion on behalf of the have-nots, of the poor and the dispossessed, and in doing so was driven out of his own culture and came to embrace another. He was a freedom fighter in many ways, and such a bad ass, that I was immediately attracted to the character.”
Ross wanted to tell Knight’s story, because, as he says, it illustrates that the South was not entirely unified in its support of the Confederacy or slavery, that indeed many southerners were morally opposed to slavery and willing to stand against it, according to the film studio. “Ross was also passionate to present life in the South after the war, and throughout Reconstruction,” the studio says. “Very few of the plethora of films and television programming set during the Civil War have included this period –the most notable being the notorious silent epic ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ and later ‘Gone with the Wind,’ both decidedly of their time. As Ross learned, it was what Knight did after the war that made him more fascinating and cemented his enduring legacy.”
“Knight refused to stop fighting for civil rights, even after the war began to fade, and everybody assumed the slaves were free,” says Ross. “As a filmmaker, you dream about finding a character like this. I am fortunate that I was able to find him and I’m incredibly fortunate that I’m able to tell this story against this size of a canvas.”
Thus, “Free State of Jones” becomes a film very much like a documentary, but it is not really a documentary, and the movie solidly remains a captivating, entertaining (although brutally honest and straightforward and, at times, as noted, gut-wrenching film) feature film, albeit a feature film that revels in its accuracy, historical research and thorough documentation. All of that results, of course, in a film that is intelligent, savvy, honest (that keeps coming up, but it’s a notable characteristic of the film) and academic, while still remembering to remain watchable, exciting, suspenseful, emotional, heartbreaking, uplifting and dramatic. Despite its research, the movie is, of course, still an entertaining movie.
McConaughey leads an impressive cast that will leave audiences adhering to the cliché about making one laugh and cry, but in this case, it’s true—there’s enough in the story to make one equally cry, sigh, despair, get anger, but also rally, be uplifted, laugh and even cheer. The film’s overall dramatic story and the very real soaring emotions that come along with war, fighting, death, pillaging, lynching, racism, integration, civil rights and general death and destruction amid the backdrop of a wrenching, agonizing war that was literally tearing apart a young country, prompts a willingness on the part of the viewer to engage themselves in a deeply emotional manner with the film—but an engagement that pays off in the end due to the quality of the film, storytelling, production, direction and acting—and the realization that Newt Knight was indeed a hero.
Besides the obvious hard work of Ross as director, writer, researcher and co-producer, and McConaughey in his heroic role, they are ably aided by a core group of actors that rise to the historical occasion: British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw—successfully turning in a credible, understated Southern accent—is strong, individualistic, yet also warm, caring and endearingly likeable as Knight’s black girlfriend and, eventually, common-law wife, Rachel; the proud, strong and equally-heroic Mahershala Ali (not related to Muhammad Ali) as Moses Washington, the runaway slave who becomes an early post-war, Reconstruction-era civil rights leader alongside Knight, will remind viewers of an early Martin Luther King, and that’s only a good thing; Keri Russell, who plays Knight’s first wife, Serena Knight, a woman who is so sympathetic, caring viewers will cry for her, as she loses literally everything in her life to the war yet somehow remains proud and strong—this is possibly Russell’s finest performance in her entire career; and Christopher Berry and Sean Bridgers, who play the likeable, reliable, smart and comforting right-hand men and comrades-in-arms to Knight, Jasper Collins and Will Sumrall—men who in the film and in real life become as heroic and courageous as Knight, Rachel, Serena and Moses!
And that’s something to note right there—“Free State of Jones” has a cast of real-life characters who were all likeable and all heroic—and, while any film is going to dramatize and heighten the drama for its character—again, remembering that a film must entertain as well as teach and tell a story—the facts remain that these characters were indeed heroic, courageous individuals in real life, and that makes their filmic portrayals all the more compelling up on the screen. All the actors understand the challenges of portraying true-life heroes, so they play down their acting to a more realistic, relatable level—but remaining skilled and powerful–and they evenly portray their characters real people fighting for real causes—and, to the actors’ credit, not making the characters over-dramatized, out-sized or overly-romantic characters.
This is all in keeping with Ross’ over-arching vision of keeping the film grounded, real, honest and direct. People die, people suffer horrible wounds, people deal with the very worst in life, and the hell and horror of war are shown directly, right up there on the screen, unflinching and straightforward—but not in a wincing, stomach-churning, disgusting manner, like, say, the violence sickeningly displayed to the point of overkill in “The Revenant.” Ross has made a film that succeeds with portraying life’s brutalities and insanities and corruption and death without turning audiences’ minds and stomachs away from the screen as “The Revenant” did. That film alienated many viewers, but “Free State of Jones” does not do that; instead, the film draws you into the captivating story, even as the viewer deals with the dark, harsh realities that are depicted. In this manner, “Free” recalls the better aspects of the original “Roots” from back in the 1970s—that mini-series, too, never backed away from showing reality, but the production was also always entertaining.
The producers of “Free State” should also be noted for their authentic, on-site sets and scenes filmed in the New Orleans area and in actual Louisiana swamps and other locations—actual, real production values and production design that add to the authenticity of the film. Costume designers, make-up artists (for war wounds and carnage), extras and re-enactor casting directors (for many war scenes), battle and fight choreographers, and set dressers who supplied accurate period props and set dressing worked hard to achieve impressive period-authentic work on the film.
Ross, his producers and his cast are to be applauded for taking a little-known story and elevating it to a wonderfully told tale of heroism, courage, bravery and honor in “Free State of Jones.”
“There’s a reason that more books have been written about the Civil War than any other period of American history,” Ross says, according to the studio production notes. “And there’s a reason that more biographies have been written about Abraham Lincoln than anybody except for Christ. This is a gash in the American consciousness. This is a wound in our own history that’s almost inestimable. 600,000 people died. It’s something that’s taken generations if not a century to get over and make sense of. Newt Knight makes sense of the American Civil War at its essence, which is that it was fundamentally a moral struggle.”
And Ross’ excellent “Free State of Jones” makes sense of Knight’s story—in a nod to Knight himself, in a brave, courageous, honorable and heroic manner. The film also makes clear that that gash in the American consciousness is still open—and that injury still needs some major, continuing work to make it heal.