How to give an account of a major struggle that goes on for years, makes only inches of progress with setbacks, and contains dozens of stories? The filmmakers of Free State of Jones have attempted just that, but needed more judicious editing for the sake of coherence and a bit of brevity. At 139 minutes, it is too long, especially considering the weight of the material. The story jumps back and forth between what is going on in Missouri during and just after the war and 85 years later when the son of two of the characters seems still to be fighting against racism. If writer/director Gary Ross wanted to make a point about the length of the struggle, maybe that is his rationale for including this segment of the film, but it is so far removed from the core of the story it becomes too much to absorb.
That being said, Free State of Jones is educational and even inspirational in showing how people in the South coped with the ending of the Civil War and the departure of the Union troops. It’s also very painful to watch as the cruelty continued toward people of color, and the Confederates deflected their anger toward the Union upon them. This is based on the true story of Newton Knight (McConaughey), a white man who valued freedom and equality for everyone, and how he got caught up in the cause, even when his wife (Russell) protested that he seemed more intent on protecting others when she and her son were having to endure repeated raids on their farm.
Newton is serving as a nurse in the Confederate Army when a young relative suddenly appears, asking for his help. (Even at his young age, he has been conscripted into the Army, which is also plundering local farms for supplies. They are supposed to be taking 10% from each private household, but often take everything.) Newton is trying to get the child out of harm’s way when a bullet kills him, and Newton feels honor-bound to get his body back to his mother. Now, Newton is a deserter, and has his picture on “Wanted” posters.
Much of the rest of the story involves Newton hiding out in the swamp, being helped by runaway slaves, and eventually taking up their cause—which coincides with his own wish for freedom and justice for all. It’s rewarding to see the cleverness Newton brings to the cause—he’s a natural born leader—and how talented he is at exploiting the weaknesses of the enemy and using his and his team’s strengths.
McConaughey has become a quintessential actor of excellence, and this is a role made for him in its combination of heroics and modesty. Mbatha-Raw, as slave and healer Rachel, joins him in the rebellion, showing a fine balance between the refinement she has learned in a plantation house, subjugation, and resistance.
This film will be favored more by those who have an interest in history and can appreciate the complexities in relationships that it depicts. And in that vein, those viewers will see how relevant it is today in speaking to our own conundrums regarding race, politics, marriage, and equality.
Think of this film as a history lesson and go see it! (Like a history class, you won’t enjoy all of it, but you’ll appreciate its truths.)