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Free State of Jones

I know I’m late to the party on this one. But at this point, I’m so far behind that I just have to get to the movie theater and buy a ticket for whatever’s playing at that particular time. So here’s Free State of Jones, which comes to us from director/co-writer/producer Gary Ross. This is the same guy who directed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, though he’s more commonly known nowadays for directing the first Hunger Games movie.

This is the “true story” of Newton Knight, here immortalized by Matthew McConaughey. When we first meet Knight, he’s an army medic gathering fallen soldiers for the Confederate side of the American Civil War. And there are a lot of them, given the Confederacy’s puzzling tactic of loudly marching their soldiers in rank and file directly into enemy fire, without any attempt to hide or fire back. And it gets worse from there.

See, word comes down about the “Twenty Negro Law“, which basically means that Confederate families with ownership of twenty or more black slaves wouldn’t have to send their white children off to war. So the rich families are spared the war effort, leaving only the poor folk for cannon fodder. Even worse, the Confederate armies are entitled to 10 percent of whatever is owned by Confederate citizens. In theory, this is a tax to strengthen the Confederate army and keep the war going. In practice, the Confederate soldiers take every last crumb of food that belongs to poor families, keeping it to make themselves rich, while leaving the larger plantations alone.

So not only are we dealing with comically evil racist villains — we’re dealing with comically evil rich and greedy villains. To be fair, examining our history of racism by dovetailing it with modern paranoia about the One Percent is actually a pretty neat idea. The racist aspect of American history and its accompanying baggage have already been so thoroughly done to death that I appreciate an attempt to examine the subject from a new and timely angle.

But then Knight says (and I swear to God, this is a verbatim quote from the actual film) “Somehow, some way, and some time, everybody is somebody else’s nigger.” And he very clearly means EVERYONE, white and colored alike. The character — and therefore, the filmmakers — are saying that the poorest of white people were equal to black people who were literally considered subhuman. And by virtue of the movie’s parallels to modern income inequality, this means that modern-day poor people of all races have it just as bad as those of the antebellum era who could be beaten to death and hung with no legal repercussions whatsoever. I mean… wow. That’s some special kind of self-righteous ignorance right there.

Getting back on track, Newton’s son (Daniel, played by Jacob Lofland) is conscripted into the Confederate army and he gets shot in the line of duty. Newton goes AWOL to bring his son back home and bury him in Jones County of Mississippi. And since desertion is punishable by execution, Newton is unable to go back to the army or even show his face in public. Eventually, he finds refuge in the swamps of Mississippi, where he’s taken in by a commune of runaway slaves.

The war continues, the Union keeps winning, and the Confederacy gets more aggressive with their “taxation.” This means an increase in Confederate deserters, which in turn means an increase in deserters’ houses and farms getting burned to the ground. So naturally, the deserters join up with Newton Knight, who’s basically become a kind of Civil War-era Robin Hood.

Newton and his anti-Confederate rebels start causing so much trouble that the Confederacy offers a full pardon to any deserters who put down their weapons and turn themselves over. But of course the Confederate leaders are so comically evil and stupid that they just hang the refugees outright, in plain view of Newton and his followers, thereby eliminating any incentive for coming forward and unifying the enemy against them. Seriously, the Confederate brass in this film are so unbelievably incompetent it’s a miracle that the war wasn’t over a lot sooner.

Anyway, Newton and his followers are despised by the Confederacy, and the Union won’t recognize them as a legitimate ally. Thus the Free State of Jones was born.

So they hold out until the war ends and that’s the movie, right? WRONG! We’ve still got like forty minutes left. That’s when we get into voter suppression, the Ku Klux Klan, the various loopholes around slavery, the Davis Knight subplot… oh, did I forget to mention that part?

See, Davis Knight (played here by Brian Lee Franklin) is a white man who got married to a white woman in the great state of Mississippi. Unfortunately, Davis’ great-grandmother may have been black, which would be enough for Davis to be legally considered a Negro. In turn, this means that he’d be legally unable to marry a white woman, and there’s this whole court case subplot about whether or not his marriage constitutes a crime. And all of this actually happened… in the late 1940s. That’s right, folks: At random intervals, the movie will cut back and forth between two stories that are only tangentially related and take place over 80 years apart.

Look, I get what the film was going for. Voter suppression, racism, income inequality, the whole political system getting rigged in favor of the white and wealthy, these are all huge issues. Exploring them through the Civil War and its aftermath — and including a subplot set nearly a century later — sends a very clear message: That Reconstruction never really ended and we still have a lot of work left to do.

The problem is that when we’re talking about something so nebulous, with a beginning that happened before anyone can remember and no end in sight, there’s no way to encompass all of that in a way that makes for a well-defined or well-paced story. It doesn’t make for a tight plot, a compelling story, or any kind of good cinema.

But of course the film isn’t all bad. Gugu Mbatha-Raw finally gets a halfway decent role worthy of her talent, and Mahershala Ali does an admirable job as well. Keri Russell also appears in a brief yet welcome turn as Newton’s wife. And as for the leading man himself, this is McConaughey at his most unmistakably southern and his most charismatic. This turns out to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, McConaughey is at his best when he’s got that fire in his eyes and a soft-spoken rasp in his throat. Those are the times when it seems like every word out of his mouth carries weight and it’s easy to understand how he could lead an army of fanatics. On the other hand, this also makes it hard to understand how so many people could actually be hearing a word out of his mouth. The guy spoke so softly and in such a thick southern accent that even I had some trouble understanding some lines.

Those aside, there really aren’t any actors in this film who are worth commenting on, in large part because so many of these characters are the same paper-thin archetypes we’ve seen in countless other racially-charged movies we’ve seen before. Also, while Gary Ross has mercifully abandoned the “shaky-cam on a bungee cord” method he used on The Hunger Games, at least that might have been visually interesting. Presented out of context, any shot in this film could just as easily have come from 12 Years a SlaveDjango Unchained, or any other Civil War-era movie to come out in recent years. We’ve come such a very long way from the dazzling color and epic scale of Gone With the Wind, though maybe it’s a good thing in that particular case. But I digress.

Free State of Jones is a well-intentioned failure. I love how the film tried to use the Civil War to examine issues tangential to slavery and poverty, but it’s all done in a manner that’s tin-eared, clumsy, and unintentionally offensive. What’s more, the filmmakers went after too wide a time span and too many topics, biting off way more than they could chew. This resulted in a plot that spread in far too many directions, sprawling into an incoherent mess with broken pacing.

I applaud the effort of those involved, but there’s no way I can recommend this.

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