Free State of Jones



                This is based on a true story, which makes it even more poignant,but also somewhat scattered.  Because this Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey)  was a complicated man, with a complex life.
We meet him during the height of the Civil War.  Being from Mississippi, he fights for the Confederacy---or more accurately, he does grunt work in the field hospital, which is a truly gruesome place where limbs are amputated without anesthetic, and many lower-ranking soldiers await the rare doctor visit while slowly dying of neglect.
It's a very sad scenario, but the battle scene is even more horrific:  brave men marching resolutely into cannon fire, to take a hill of no particular strategic importance, but showing their bravery by not flinching, and absorbing the live fire without complaint or retreat?  Well, they say that in every war the generals use the strategies of the previous war while being surprised by the new technology of their own.  They also say that after the first shot is fired, all strategy goes out the window, anyway.
                Well, we all know that the South was in desperate straits very early.  Outnumbered in the field and outsupplied from the infrastructure, it was a long, slow descent into the blackness of total devastation.  And especially after the resounding defeats at Vickburg (and Gettysburg), many soldiers took the opportunity to just melt away and try to go home.
                Except that home was now the place where not only were supplies "requisitioned" by so-called "friendly" troops, there was also plenty of corruption, and an almost gleeful pursuit of deserters, to hang them unceremoniously, without trial, from the nearest oak tree.  Newton Knight, of course, was trying to avoid this fate, so he finds refuge in the swamps, where he happens upon a ragged band of runaway slaves, also taking advantage of the chaos to try to slip away and live on their own.  But of course both deserters and runaway slaves were hunted down ruthlessly.  Newton Knight leads a group that is willing to fight back.  At first, they don't think of themselves of having joined the Union forces, but in effect, they are Union, because of their common enemy:  the Confederates.
                Newton Knight had to abandon his family to run to the swamps, but while there became interested in a runaway slave named Rachel, whom he unceremoniously takes up with---which provides some awkward moments when the War finally does end, and the wife returns with the kid (actually there were several) and the new girlfriend, well, suggests they stay in the shack out back.  Nice irony there.  Rachel is winsomely played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, but the real story here is how Newton Knight not only survives the War, but becomes something of a redneck celebrity afterwards, by being awarded farmland as if part of the victorious occupying army (well, in a way, he was, but they won't claim him, either).
                Yes, in a sense, it's an idyllic community of blacks, whites, and women all fighting together and living as equals in a society that knew no such thing.  And of course their social experiment was not without repurcussions.  This movie intersperses the tale, taking place 80 years later, of Newton and Rachel's progeny having to prove in a court of Mississippi law that he's not "mixed race"---which at the time was defined as 1/8th.  Whew.
                Then there's the rise of the Ku Klux Klan as a reactionary response to Reconstruction....racism just won't let go, even if legally outlawed.  And that, of course, is the situation in which we still find ourselves, though of course your perspective on how bad that problem is may well vary according to your personal demographic.
As for the movie, well, it's gritty, it's resolute, it's heart-rending.  It's also completely lacking in charm, humor, or anything remotely resembling fun, which will naturally make many viewers stay away in droves.  But if so, they'll miss an interesting little history lesson.  And a sobering reminder that some things haven't changed enough.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                   Why was there a Civil War?

2)                   What is the state of racism in the United States now?

3)                   How are “mixed marriages” viewed where you live?

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association