Former blacksmith Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) steadies an ex-slave’s head against a mangrove tree in a Mississippi swamp and starts slamming the steel bolt on the medieval, 4-pronged “punishment collar” the runaway slave had been forced to wear. The year: 1863.
That particular sound of freedom carries a long distance in a Southern swamp, and immediately—explosively—a hunting party with dogs in full-cry, is on the warpath to suppress it. Knight, making a run for it, gets run down by a German shepherd and viciously lacerated.
Healing his bite wounds later, the group of swamp-dwelling ex-slaves Knight’s befriended, chuckle: “Guess dem dogs likes the taste o’ you, much as dey likes the taste of us.”
Knight, a battlefield nurse, deserts the Confederate Army after his nephew dies in his arms. He’s had it; he hauls the boy home on horseback to his grief-stricken mother.
He’s watched the Confederate Army ransack Southern farmers crops and livestock to feed troops, and force those farmers’ fearful 5-year-olds to fire flintlocks.
He’s watched wealthy slave-owners and their sons sidestep the draft. They had cotton to pick. Or rather, they had slaves to pick cotton. He’d watched starvation rule the day—for the poor. He’d watched his fair share of the 600,000 deaths in the American Civil War.
Thus the stage is set for “Free State of Jones,” a cinematic re-enactment of an obfuscated historical fact about an insurrection in Mississippi, by a swamp-squatting commune of poor whites, their pistol-wielding wives, and escaped slaves, who utilized guerrilla warfare (much like the Seminole Indians in their Floridian swamp strongholds), and were led by above-mentioned fed-up farmer and proto-socialist—Newt Knight.
The film covers 14 years, during which Knight swells his swamp army with both blacks and whites. Needless to say, during a time of virulent racism, this arrangement doesn’t sit well with many of the whites therein, but Knight declares them equals. In his mind, the war is split only by a rich–poor divide. “We ain’t got no country. So we’ll be our own country.”
Knight had become involved with a former house slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), during the swamp years. His story, from war nurse to insurrection leader, is paralleled by vignettes from the narrative of his great grandson, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin). In 1948, Davis’s black ancestry comes to light, and he was convicted of miscegenation on Dec. 17 of that year.
He’s one-eighth black. It only took one drop of black blood for Jim Crow law to apply. However, what wasn’t immediately clear was whether he was the descendant of Newt’s white wife (Keri Russell) or of his black lover. Son of son of son of Knight was supposed to do five years in prison, but didn’t, because the state couldn’t prove beyond reasonable doubt, the state of his blood.
What You Get
Since “12 Years A Slave” raised the quality bar on the telling of American antebellum slave stories, the wealth of heretofore hidden and obscure narratives are starting to come to light. However, like “12 Years,” these stories are best served when not directed by Americans. The subject matter still apparently carries too much shame in America/Hollywood for such a story to not end up being told from a white, patriarchal, savior perspective, that inevitably serves up large portions of proselytizing. That being said, “Free State” is definitely well intended.
Like “12 Years,” it’s got unflinching brutality, that, in the hands of a lesser director, could easily have become white-supremacist type slave-brutality porn. And while it’s definitely over-long, extending beyond the end of the Civil War, through Reconstruction, the racial terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, and Jim Crow laws, one is left with the impression that director Gary Ross did his darnedest to do right by the material. Matthew McConaughey carries the whole movie on his back, powerfully.
Was Knight Right?
As Knight points out, while he’s definitely anti-war and an avowed abolitionist—it’s the class struggle of it all that really stuck in his craw.
The Declaration of Independence claims all men are created equal, but the capitalist U.S. government ultimately came down hard on Knight’s notions of economic equality.
Nevertheless, his ideas were a sign of the cosmic climate of the times—the Paris Commune uprising was happening around the same time; Knight was basically, unbeknownst to himself, a socialist. He’d have had a rude awakening, could he have witnessed the bloody deeds eventually done in the name of Karl Marx.
The latter portions of “Free State of Jones” hint at harrowing future cinematic tellings of gothic racial terrorism and the long, dark reign of the Ku Klux Klan. We realize how much we cherish the ideas of equality and freedom. It’s difficult to argue with some of Knight’s maxims, especially, “Every man is a man,” and, “You cannot own a child of God.” “Free State of Jones” is basically a swampland “Braveheart.” Fighting for freedom is always a noble cause.
‘Free State of Jones’
Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell, Mahershala Ali, Jacob Lofland, Sean Bridgers
Running Time: 2 hours, 19 minutes
Release Date: June 24
Rated 3.5 stars out of 5