‘Free State of Jones’: An epic narrative lost in the telling

‘Free State of Jones’: An epic narrative lost in the telling

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"Free State of Jones" is a fascinating, cinematic true-life story of a pro-union Mississippi county whose grassroots community opposes the Confederacy and attempts to remain in the Union.

Battle scene from "Free State of Jones." (PR still via STX Entertainment)

WASHINGTON, July 14, 2016 – Telling any story set in and around the Civil War is a difficult task. Not only do you have to deal with the historical basics. You also have to figure out how to capture the actual emotions involved in the conflict, the attitude of the combatants, and the driving force of this war, which in reality was fought over dueling visions of what constituted private property and individual rights.

In other words, even after 150 years plus, the Civil War is still ripe for unpacking both in the way it’s been treated in the past as well as how America’s feelings about the conflict are always evolving. All of this and more is what makes the new Bluegrass Films/STX Entertainment film “ Free State of Jones” one complicated package at best.

“Free State of Jones” relates the rarely told story of Jones County, Mississippi, which actually spurned the ideology of the Confederacy during Civil War and eventually refused to acknowledge their state’s and their region’s secession from the Union. More specifically, the film focuses on the life of Newton “Newt” Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and how his legacy shaped that area of Mississippi over a roughly ten-year period.

Unfolding from about the midpoint of the Civil War, the film’s story line finds Newt enlisted in the Army of the Confederacy and tasked with shuttling wounded soldiers from the front lines to primitive treatment areas, which often prove of little use. It’s at this point that Newt’s teenage arrives in camp after abandoning his company, informing Newt of the poor state of their home. Newt tries to get his nephew out of serving, but the boy suffers a fatal gunshot wound, leading Newt to desert the Army and return home with the body.

"Free State of Jones," PR still courtesy STX Entertainment.
“Free State of Jones,” PR still courtesy STX Entertainment.

It’s at this point where the story really begins to take off. A reward is put on Newt’s head after he deserts, and the reward sum is increased when he defends the home of his neighbors from predation by the local Confederate troops. Fleeing to the Mississippi swamps, and stumbles into a camp of runaway slaves. There, with the help of a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), he finds both the kinship and the means necessary to rebel against the Confederacy itself.

But this is where the film springs a surprise on the audience. We suddenly learn that the action we’ve been watching is occurring within an almost-contemporary frame tale. Transported to the 1950s, we discover that David Knight (Brian Lee Franklin)—Newton Knight’s grandchild—is on trial in Mississippi for marrying a white woman, given his “dubious” family heritage. It turns out that Davis’ paternal grandmother is the previously noted Rachel, who, after the Civil War ended, became Newt’s partner. In the eyes post-World War II Mississippi, that made Davis legally black and therefore unable, at the time, to legally marry his wife.

The first time the movie shifts to the first of the courthouse scenes proves abrupt and jarring, as up to that point there has been no indication the story was headed in this direction. The time traveling doesn’t really do much with the movie’s overall narrative thrust, save as a thematic device attempting to tie things together at the very end.

It’s clear that the filmmakers behind “Free State of Jones” had epic ambitions for this movie. Unfortunately, the intercutting scenes sharply expose the faults of this film, demonstrating instead the extent to which the filmmakers fell short of their intended scope.

The way the narrative unfolds, it’s clear the filmmakers’ original intent was to craft a considerably more epic saga of Jones County and its importance within the framework of the Civil War and Reconstruction. But the choice to funnel the larger narrative into the story of a single lead character cuts its epic aspirations off at the metaphorical knees.

Placing Newton Knight at the center of the film is this film’s strength as well as its weakness. Knight is by far the best-known historical figures hailing from Jones County, and is arguably a major reason why that county has national significance for our still evolving Civil War narrative. But the film’s focus on Knight ultimately holds the narrative back from fully developing its larger premise.

As important as Newt is to the story of Jones County, the desire by the county’s residents to remain within the Union came from the grass roots, not from Newton Knight. This is important, not only because it makes Newt’s ability to recruit Jones County residents to take up arms against the Confederacy more plausible. It also gives the local populace more agency, making the county’s residence considerably more than just Newt’s willing accomplices.

Overlooking that aspect of Jones County history does a disservice to the story, reducing an epic tale to a personal one. This issue comes to the forefront whenever Newt isn’t dealing with people who weren’t in the war with him, namely pretty much every black character in the film.

Based on the promotional material for “Free State of Jones,” there seems to have been some defensiveness on the part of the narrators that their film would be viewed as a cynical “White Savior” story. While that’s not necessarily the case here, “Free State of Jones” doesn’t necessarily finesse the issue either.

Aside from Newt’s future partner Rachel – and it is a little bothersome that she literally only interacts with Newt and his first wife Serena (Keri Russell) – the only other black character other any prominence is Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali). When Newt shows up at their camp in the swamp he’s accepted as one of them almost immediately. Yet beyond Rachel and Moses, none of the other runaway slaves are given anything to do or say.

Whether this sin of omission is intentional or not, the question arises: is it better to be misrepresented in an historical narrative or essentially erased from bones of a story. To treat the history of Jones County as one that isn’t entirely linked to slavery and freedom of black people in their county is missing a large chunk of the story and also removes a lot of meat from the story of Moses’ own story arc. While the film has to acknowledge that black people were present and part of the action, it has no real intention to focus on them, other than to have Newt react in their favor in response to white racism.

It is possible that this film is using black people less as characters than as part of an overarching metaphor, equating their monetary value to plantation owners to represent the filmmakers’ commentary on the role of wealth and property in America, at least at that time. Indeed, one of the major talking points throughout the film is how the people of Jones County are fighting to keep slave/plantation owners wealthy.

The implication is that not much has changed in the U.S. even today, with only the details being shifted. That’s all fine and good. But socio-economic path loses a lot of its power because the film has no real avenue to address what actually generates wealth for the slave owners and keeps much of the people of Jones County poor. Again, it seems to be a case where a film that set out to do so much ends up doing very little and doing even that not very well.

There is a great deal of material vying to be the primary focus of “ Free State of Jones.” The film aims to tie all these various points together. But in the end, the skill just isn’t there. Ultimately the Free State of Jones feels like a rough draft of a far stronger story whose neglected key elements are just too noticeable to lurk around as underdeveloped background themes.

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