Free State of Jones, directed by Gary Ross, tells the true story of the Jones County uprising against the Confederacy in Jones County Mississippi. In those times, if you were a part of a company (military) and you left for any reason, you could be tried for treason or hung on sight. None of this mattered to Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who was a nurse during his brief stint in the war but a farmer by trade.
His views clashed with those of the confederacy and because he was a free-thinker, that came with its own set of problems. Newt was a man of the Lord and his belief can be summed up in one bible verse: “Whatever a man soweth, he shall reap!” The two things that disgusted him the most was seeing the exception for the rich (if you owned 10 or more slaves you didn’t have to fight) and the government’s 10% (confederate soldiers approached homes seeking 10% for sustenance, blankets, etc). The biggest problem with this was that the rich continued making rules and laws and they saw fit and the military factions were taking more along the liens of 90% and leaving the poor people and farmers with 10%. Knight believed firmly, that whatever a man put into the ground (Whatever a man soweth) belongs to him (He shall reap).
Once he’s shunned by his wife Serena (Keri Russell), he leaves his town and through the advice of a friend, finds himself in a swamp. This swamp is an underground safe haven for those who abandon the war and runaway slaves. Once there, he reunites with a house slave he met once before named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). From there, their numbers grow and the uprisings begin.
A burley, rugged McConaughey, puts on the performance of a lifetime as Newton Knight. He played a man who had a backbone and who was about his principles: A man of God cannot be owned and whatever a man puts into the ground belongs to him. He had the look, the lines, and the persona to pull off this character and connect with the audience. Every time he stood up for a family, every time he protected a woman or child, every time he took up for a black person, you connected with him. He was what you used to hear often in the 80s and 90s “A man’s man.”
McConaughey’s relationship onscreen with Mahershala Ali (who played Moses, a runaway slave) was stellar. Together, the two build a trust and working relationship between those who fled the war and slaves who fled their masters, to create one cohesive unit; The Free State of Jones.
They were smart enough to get by with the resources they were afforded and humble enough to know when they were outmatched. Their constant protection was the swamp. Infantry never penetrated the swamp, so if they ever found themselves in a town or area they felt could be penetrated by stronger numbers they could revert to the marshes. As time elapses and the war ends, they show another part of history (like this story itself) that many people are unaware of: reparations.
40 acres and a mule: The promise to black people in the United States at that time. That promise quickly goes null as times change and presidents change. Years after blacks were “emancipated” parts of the South and definitely Mississippi still kept blacks in servitude. It was gut-wrenching to see freed men tending to their own farms, only to have to return to plantations soon after. Under the guise of “apprenticeship” many blacks were forced back into labor against their will.
The obstruction and the discrimination continues to this day. Many people have seen trailers for this and another movie coming out this fall called “The Birth Of A Nation” and see it as a move to “divide us.” The reason films like these are important is because history is to be learned for the betterment of all. We don’t want to repeat these things. The local government of Ellisville (in the film), tried to obstruct the votes of blacks. Fast forward to today, many areas in the South are doing the exact same thing right now. The discrimination highlighted in the film was a balance of race and class. Fast forward to now, it’s the exact same thing. If you watch this film you’ll see so many similarities to what’s happening today that you should feel touched (that is, if you choose to be aware of such realities).
The issue of race is not as complex as the masses make it to be. Sometimes a simple notion like ‘listening’ is viewed with skepticism and more than meets the eye. Was asking for freedom so much? The right to vote? Is an interracial relationship hurting anybody? (Nowadays you’ll see the term ‘miscegenation’ thrown about) The Free State of Jones County mulled over things so simple and truly divisive. Blacks and whites alike had their own homes and land, and Newton Knight himself lived with and had children by Rachel, a black woman. The overall theme to be seen from this (that still applies to today) is the common cause between blacks and working class whites; There’s more in common than meets the eye.
The Free State of Jones gets a 9 out of 10. Matthew McConaughey should get a nod come award season and possibly Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali for supporting roles. The film runs about 2 hrs and 20 mins properly earned its R-rating for language and death. The masses should be coming down from their Finding Dory hangover, so what better time to catch this film than the week before Independence Day?