Much has been made of the prominence of a ‘white saviour’ in biographical historical epic Free State of Jones. Is this a film about slavery? Yes. Is it led by a white character? Yes. But to limit the field of vision and intent of director Gary Ross’ latest feature negates other aspects of a film that proposes to treat humanity and inhumanity in a wider sense, and under many different guises. There is no questioning the import of representations of race in film but undue criticism for this constituent part of a broad narrative misses a grasp of the whole. That said, the scope of this project may even be set too wide.
There’s no getting away from the based-on-real-events source material. How fast and loose Ross has played with the facts is a question for Civil War historians to debate but we first meet Newton Knight on the battlefield. The now consistently strong Matthew McConaughey, grubby, grizzled and browbeaten, features as a war-weary stretcher bearer who through prominent, darkened eyes and malnourished pallor silently screams of the futility of it all. During brutal opening exchanges on a southern field hued grey through dust and dirt, blood red is the only colour to stand out. The death of his nephew is Newt’s breaking point; no longer will he participate in a conflict designed, in his eyes, to keep the rich affluent and poor submissive. Notably it is the division of class that precedes racial borderlines.
Returning his young relative home for burial, and consequently branded a deserter, Newt finds homesteads pillaged by Confederate forces. With women and children unable to defend themselves so begins his Robin Hood-esque plight for the downtrodden. A dual-edged sword of altruism sees wife (Keri Russell) hightail it out of town with their infant son. Newt’s indifference to their disappearance for much of the film is one of a few questionable plot designs. Some dialogue tries too hard to be loaded with meaning but McConaughey’s southern drawl, dripping with easy charisma, remains naturalistic. Filmed in Jones County, Mississippi and across Louisiana, Ross and cinematographer Benoît Delhomme make extremely good use of their environment.
Be it Newt’s flight on foot through long grass, a shimmering green on the surface of a swamp, the cool blue of early dawn, the visual aesthetic is alluring, immersed as we are deep in the Southern wilds. Aided by the effortlessly wonderful Gugu Mbatha-Raw, whose role as house slave Rachel isn’t quite as substantial as the actress deserves, Newt finds himself the leader of a group of runaway slaves and in little time her part-time lover. Contrasting skin colours are secondary to characters all marginalised as outlaws, united as men wanted by unjust authorities. The essential problem here is that even with a ballooned running time (of 2 hours 20 minutes) comes more plot than is feasible for a single feature. The material at hand could certainly have been deployed as a two-parter.
A detailed character study, history lesson and indictment of shameful ills, the latter stages include the KKK, a lynching, Lincoln, abolition and Military Reconstruction. A series of flash-forwards throughout to 80 years later also transport us to a Mississippi court case in which the legality of Knight’s grandson is challenged due to his potentially negro heritage. This, along with Mahershala Ali’s Moses’ mission to register black voters post-abolition, serves to emphasise history repeating itself and ongoing racial issues in the South today but shoehorning in so much dilutes their impact. “What you sow, you should reap,” says Newt in one of many passionate, humanist rallying cries to his army of the marginalised. Free State of Jones is an engaging picture but this bumper harvest is too plentiful for its own good.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens