Mark Reviews Movies

Free State of Jones


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Gary Ross

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin

MPAA Rating: R (for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images)

Running Time: 2:19

Release Date: 6/24/16

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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 23, 2016

There's something to be said for a film that is as structurally and thematically ambitious as Free State of Jones, even if the impact of its central argument is lost a bit because the film must cover a lot of ground in order to reach its point. Writer/director Gary Ross' film is an overtly political treatise on the cyclical nature of systematic prejudice and oppression that's primarily set during the Civil War and Reconstruction. It's about how sweeping changes to the status quo inevitably bring about devious attempts to return to those old ways. In the film's seemingly out-of-left-field flashes to a period some 80 years after the war and the aftermath, it's about how the problems of the past never truly leave us. They merely evolve into something else, with different words being used to signify the same, old injustice.

The point is clear and admirable. Even so, it feels as if the film is missing some key component that would make this sad, inescapably story about the course of history devastating, instead of simply leaving one appreciative of the effort.

Part of what's absent has to do with the narrative's focus—both in terms of what's missing and of having perhaps the wrong focus on what is present. The story involves the people of an area of Mississippi who, fed up with the toll of the war on their personal lives, decide to create their own sovereign state. The virtues and principles of this small nation are stated quite concisely by the state's leader Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey): freedom to live as one pleases, the notion that a man should be allowed to make living without an army depriving him of his livelihood or life, and, above all else, that a man is a man, regardless of the color of his skin.

For Newton, of course, this is a relatively easy fight compared to some of the other people within this community. His basic humanity is never a legal question. When the army comes to his farm or the farms of others like him, the soldiers may take a majority of the crop and some personal belongings, but that army is not fighting on the side of a rebellion to keep a group of human beings enslaved.

His life is in jeopardy after he, a medic in the Confederate Army, deserts from his unit in order to give his nephew (Jacob Lofland) a proper burial. At first, the Confederacy doesn't know how to handle his ragtag group of deserters and runaways. Eventually, the people within the community, which grows larger as the outcome of the war looks dire for the South, don't know for whom or what they're fighting. Even among these folks, whose fates are inextricably tied together, racial prejudice rears its ugly head.

When the war ends, Newton's rights as a citizen are never challenged. He can walk down a dirt road in the countryside without having look over his shoulder for members of a terrorist organization looking to execute their twisted brand of justice.

In other words, the film is yet another look at the African American and black experience through the eyes and concerns of a virtuous white man. That's not to say that Ross ignores the characters whose experience is more relevant to the matters at hand, but it is to say that those experiences are secondary to Newton's own. One can't help but wonder if some of the emotional and thematic impact that's lacking here might have been better engendered if, say, the film had more room for Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave on a local plantation who later becomes Newton's second wife, or Moses (Mahershala Ali), a runaway who fights for voting rights for freedmen when the war is finished.

The screenplay does gradually move in that direction, and the film's most powerful sequence follows Moses as he attempts to register former slaves to vote—the way the hope of progress suddenly turns to horror. Another scene considers the way that the old plantation owners are able to maintain an industry of forced servitude by calling such unpaid workers "apprentices." Surely, the logic goes, apprenticeships don't fall under the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. When Newton and Moses go to retrieve the latter's son from such a life, the scene—of black men, women, and children working in the fields and living in shacks on the grounds—features the exact same shots of the last time we saw the place—when slavery was legal.

Ross' approach is too intelligent and too precise to accuse the film of pandering. His reach is too widespread to say the film simplifies history, and as much as Newton's story may overshadow the other characters, Ross' obvious outrage over the nonstop path of history toward returning to the past is too strong to call the film ignorant of a certain experience. It is, perhaps, a case of simply trying to do too much. It feels as if there's a significant section of this story missing, especially in those scenes set in the time of mid-20th century segregation. The question there is whether or not one of Newton's progeny is racially "pure" enough to marry a white woman. The attorneys debate whether the man's grandmother was Newton's first, white wife (Keri Russell) or his second.

We know it doesn't matter for the simple reason that it shouldn't matter. Watching the juxtaposition of two bygone eras in which nothing really seems to have changed all that much, it's almost impossible not to think of 60 years or so after the film's more contemporary scenes, when we have state governments and the highest court in the land either not comprehending or intentionally trying to hinder voting rights. Yes, Free State of Jones is messy, but so, too, is the past—and, for that matter, the present.

Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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