Review: 'The Free State of Jones'

A new movie hitting theaters this weekend tells a side of the Civil War that is unfamiliar to a lot of people. The Free State of Jones is the story of Newton “Newt” Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Mississippi farmer who became a Confederate Army deserter and went on to lead an armed rebellion against the Confederacy. This is a role McConaughey, with his natural Southern drawl, was born to play.

It begins in 1862 with scenes depicting the horrors of war. Knight is a Confederate medic who is disenchanted with the South’s fight, complaining to fellow soldiers that he’s tired of “poor men fighting rich men’s war.” The “Twenty Negro Law” at the time stipulated that the sons of wealthy owners of 20 or more slaves could be exempted from the military — a rule Knight clearly deplores.

His breaking point comes when when his 14-year-old nephew, Daniel, is killed in combat. “He died with honor,” a friend of Knight’s says. Knight replies, “No, Will, he just died.”

Without permission, he takes Daniel’s body back home to Jones County, Mississippi. This is a momentous decision on his part because it makes him a deserter, which holds a penalty of hanging. Now, he is a fugitive. Back home, he is outraged to find that Confederate plunderers have been confiscating landowners’ crops, animals, and provisions in order to clothe and feed the troops. Poor farmers are being left penniless and without food, while the rich plantation down the street prospers.

This is a very pro-Second Amendment movie, whether it wants to be or not. Knight convinces his neighbors to fight back, going so far as to teach women and children how to shoot. With his help, a family is able to keep some Confederate plunderers at bay. Before long, Knight is forced to leave his wife, Serena (Keri Russell), and flee into the swamps where he takes refuge with a group of runaway slaves. Knight befriends Moses (Mahershala Ali), who is wearing an iron collar with two-foot rods rising up around his head when he meets him. No one mentions the collar. Knight doesn’t ask about it. It’s just there. The swamp scenes were filmed in the humid, mosquito-infested Louisiana bayou, where the desperate characters are grimy and sweaty … and poor Moses is wearing that 12-pound collar around his neck. Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a house slave from the plantation who was being abused by the owner, periodically brings food and supplies to the fugitives. As soon as they have some rifles and shotguns to work with, he teaches the runaway slaves how to shoot. By this point, Serena has left for greener pastures and Knight and Rachel have bonded. They eventually fall in love.

The group swells in number and becomes more organized as more and more Confederate deserters join their ranks.  They form “the Free State of Jones,” a mixed-race community that is neither for the Union nor the Confederacy. “We don’t got no country on either side. We’re our own Country,” Knight says. But protected by the swamps, they have been able to form a scrappy little army that fights its own battles against the Confederacy with little Union help.

After the war, the struggle continued on through the Reconstruction Era, when the KKK (the terrorist arm of the Democrat Party) terrorized the freed slaves. When blacks are guaranteed the right to vote, Moses (an early community organizer?) walks door-to-door and into the fields to register them to vote. He is able to register a couple of dozen, but only two Republican votes showed up in the final vote tally in Jones County after that first election, indicating perhaps one of the earliest examples of Democrat election fraud.

In a parallel storyline, we are intermittently taken to a Mississippi courtroom in 1948, where Knight’s great-grandson is on trial for breaking miscegenation laws. The prosecutor is trying to establish that he has one-eighth black blood, making him black in the eyes of the state, and his marriage to a white woman illegal. It seems that writer/director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) wanted to depict how the injustices Knight fought against in the 1860s persisted well into the 20th century, however the scenes disrupted the movie’s continuity and seemed unnecessary.

Nevertheless, The Free State of Jones is a powerful and fascinating film — well worth the price of the ticket.

Newt Knight remains a controversial character in Mississippi to this day, with a line of descendants from his white wife Serena, and another line from his black common-law wife Rachel.

Terrica Knight, a descendant of Newt Knight, works at a country store in Jones County.

“I’ve had someone to come in and he’s like, ‘How do you feel about Matthew McConaughey playing your grandpappy?’ And I’m just like, ‘Who does that?’” Knight said.

Knight said she’s already experienced racial tension because she’s a descendant.

“The only thing I really want out of the movie is for all the black Knights and the white Knights to come together as one, because there’s no need to, all of that is back in the past. Slavery days are over,” she said.

Amen to that.