Movie Review: ‘FREE STATE OF JONES’ aims to make a statement but misses mark

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Jared McMillan // Film Critic

FREE STATE OF JONES | 139 min | R
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell

With the Internet now fully engrained in our habits and learning, it is incredibly difficult to pull one over on the audience with “based on a true story” or “based on actual events.” We can easily search a historical item, say Newton Knight, and learn some fascinating details, whether morally decent or questionable. In other words, Hollywood is reaching an inevitability in that it can no longer tell tales in Tinseltown fashion, where it glosses over character traits or exceptional facts in order to put a ribbon on the story. A prime example of this lies within the narrative of FREE STATE OF JONES.

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) has become disenfranchised with the Civil War, so he commits treason and goes AWOL. Only the home he comes back to is pillaged daily by Confederate tax parties, so he runs, eventually finding shelter in the swamp, thanks to house slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). He befriends runaway slaves, especially Moses (Mahershala Ali), and together, they protect their new swamp home.

Eventually, they accept other Confederate detractors, and everyone decides to take back their crops and rations. Newton becomes a Robin Hood-like figure, and they amass their own Freedmen army, where they take the town of Evansville, and proclaim what they’ve regained as the Free State of Jones, as in Jones County.

McConaughey, center, with the cast of FREE STATE OF JONES. Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment.

McConaughey, center, with the cast of FREE STATE OF JONES. Photo courtesy of STX Entertainment.

With a run-time of 2 hours and 18 minutes, there is a lot that takes place within this time frame. However, no matter how you slice it, the story is just so lazy. Now, it is very well acted and has great camerawork provided by Benoit Delhomme, but it is just incredibly cropped, sacrificing what makes the history so fascinating for a typical Hollywood hero/martyr narrative. It tries to save itself by injecting title cards of historical note, but it just reduces itself to a makeshift history lesson taught by a football coach.

Adding to the somewhat eye-rolling pedestal that Newton gets propped on, is a completely unnecessary subplot about 80 years later, involving Newton’s white ancestor being prosecuted for marrying a white woman, violating the one-drop rule (where having one drop of African blood in your genetic makeup makes you black). It’s shameless filler in order to point out that history repeats itself without being smarter about it.

FREE STATE OF JONES is just another statement trying to be made while simultaneously missing the point. We know slavery is bad, and the rich use the poor to do their battles, so what makes this story special? It is best to keep the flaws so we as an audience can better respect what Newton accomplished. Don’t cut out the fact that he was renowned for guerilla fighting, or that his mixed race kids (yeah, he had a lot more kids than were provided) were shamed by both races, which led them to marrying their step-siblings.

These things add a reality to the history that separates the story from the rest of the formulaic historical pics. With today’s sociopolitical climate navigating the studios, it’s important to have something that stands out against the hot topic of African-American history coming to fruition because of an understanding white man. The audience would’ve respected the protagonist more by sharing his actual story, which is the stuff tall tales are made of. Don’t try and manipulate our emotions by showing the hero teaching women and African-Americans how to use guns, or how to read, or grandstanding that is a blatant form of “this is not right.” Otherwise, all we see Newton as is just another white Knight.

FREE STATE OF JONES opens everywhere this weekend

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.