Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones is a confused, rambling film that, on occasion, is one of the more honest historical representations of perhaps the defining epoch of modern American history. Its first scenes, of a chaotic battle between Union and Confederate soldiers, immediately dispel the thick mist of manufactured romance that surrounds so many depictions of the Civil War. Within seconds of the film’s start, cannon fire turns men into chunks of meat as soldiers march over the bodies of their fallen comrades. And as he drags an injured rebel to safety, Confederate army deserter Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) shuffles past pigs feasting on a dead man’s intestines.
It’s a bracing opening, albeit one swiftly muted by the quick recalibration from a panorama of senseless carnage to Knight’s disgusted perspective as he speaks aloud the cynicism that the early images convey so clearly without words. We meet the man as a jaded, streetwise figure who counters his peers’ talk of honor with the more caustic (and more accurate) claim that they’re fighting to protect rich men’s cotton, not their own dignity. After watching his son get slaughtered during the Siege of Corinth, Knight becomes sick of the war and goes AWOL, returning home and marshalling locals into fighting back against usurious Confederate tax collectors who strip poor farmers bare for the war effort while leaving plantations unmolested.
At this stage, Free State of Jones begins to indulge the worst impulses of well-meaning liberal cinema. Secreted away to the swamp outside his county by friends, Knight finds himself shacked up with runaway slaves, with whom he forms an instant bond and even helps to kill a band of slavers. Knight is depicted with the unprejudiced respect and loyalty of a present-day progressive, who sees the races as equal victims of the class war. As with all such proclamations, that thought is broadly true, but fails to account for the role that race plays in that conflict, which is an understandable shortcoming of an impoverished 1800s farmer, though less forgivable when ardently believed by the 21st-century filmmaker chronicling him. The racism that can be seen within Knight’s own camp is treated like a distraction from his utopianism instead of proof of his shortsightedness.
Battle scenes of Knight’s insurgency laying waste to bigger and better armed foes recall similar skirmishes in The Patriot; they provide an easy catharsis in their brutality, but that satisfaction leaves a sour aftertaste. Worse are the stabs at elegance: A fade-out gently intimates Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave and Knight’s love interest, being raped by her master, while a long shot of Knight crying at the suspended feet of a black comrade’s mutilated and hanged corpse is almost lovingly composed. Such images capture only the somber white dejection at recognizing a broken system, and they make props of people of color to better call attention to Knight’s moral fiber.
Free State of Jones’s final act covers the hellish period of Reconstruction as hope is constantly given and taken from newly freed slaves—pawns in a social conflict between a punitive North and wrathful South. This segment is the film’s driest, as well as the most laden with supplemental text, but as a mildly dramatized history lesson, it at least does the service of honestly covering the most overlooked and heavily revised period of American history. Scenes of freedmen forced to hold Union meetings without white members of the same league because the latter will not sit with them captures the failure of America’s labor movement to form solidarity with former slaves, to the lingering weakness of both parties. Racial violence, voter suppression, and effective re-enslavement are also depicted, and a clumsily interspersed sideplot that leaps 85 years into the future to cover the miscegenation trial of Knight’s descendant crucially dispels a tendency in race-oriented films to treat the horrors of the past as self-contained.
Most importantly, the Reconstruction scenes settle into a listlessness that allows the perspective to drift away from Knight and toward others, especially Mahershala Ali’s Moses, whose once-stoic strength turns into unbridled passion for organizing labor and votes among freedmen. In a better film, Moses might have formed part of an ensemble with Knight from the start, permitting multiple perspectives and the balance of white guilt with black experience. The belated suggestion of such potential makes Free State of Jones a frustrating misfire more than a disaster, and if nothing else, it’s refreshing to see a film about the end of slavery conclude with ambivalent disgust with a marginally changed system instead of simplistic victory.