I love period piece films as long as that period isn’t Victorian-era England. Those ones aren’t necessary bad, they just feel overdone to me and now I have developed a slight bias against them. Sorry, not sorry.
Civil War era films usually get me all excited though. Or just pre-Civil War slavery films. I don’t even need them to be based on real events, which is the recent trend. Just give me a movie with brothers killing brothers and morals on the line. I wanna tear up at the hardships of war and get mad at something that happened 150+ years ago.
So the Free State of Jones is based on real events? Cool, whatever. I accidentally saw a trailer a few months ago before another screening and it looked pretty interesting. I know it was originally supposed to come out in March but got pushed back to Summer for reasons. Doesn’t matter, still excited to watch it.
“Oh, sup prof. Just chillin'”
In October, 1862, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), up for the sweetest name award, was also serving in the Confederate Army. For whatever reason he was given nurse duty, so he used that status to save his friends from the battlefield and getting them to doctors quickly. Then his son, Daniel (Jacob Lofland) appears, saying that their farm animals were taken and crops to feed the army. Newt agrees to escape with his son and take him home, but tragedy occurs and Newt is forced to just bring home a body.
Newton came from a small farm in Jones Count, Mississippi. He has been poor and kind of pissed off at the rich. Pissed that their sons don’t have to fight in the war, when he feels the entire war is them fighting for slaves that only the rich have. So he decides to stay home with his wife (Keri Russell) and young boy. He becomes a protector of all the homes in the area from Confederate troops looking to take more than the 10% allowed.
They quickly turn on him and he has to go into hiding in the swamp. There he joins a camp with Moses (Mahershala Ali) and four other runaway slaves. They hide together, work together, and eventually get guns to protect themselves. Overtime, more and more Confederate deserters are on the run and end up at this camp until they have over 100 members. Newt has developed a relation with a House slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who has been secretly helping their group.
Anyways, short story long, they eventually set out to take their land back from the Confederate soldiers that are trying to take their crops and resources. They get three counties to their name before resistance starts and decide to start their own Nation, a Free State of Jones, to like, grow their own crops and have equality and all. Fun times.
Donald Watkins and Troy Hogan play two other slaves, Bill Tangradi and Thomas Francis Murphy play our confederate leaders trying to stop this group, and a whole lot of other white people, played by Sean Bridgers, Joe Chrest, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, and Christopher Berry.
The way to prevent your stuff from getting stolen is to burn it all down.
Never before in a movie have I seen a drop in quality so much as Free State of Jones. At the beginning we are dropped right in the middle of a random Civil War fight. It showed that the Civil War was brutal, people died and marched on and died some more. Newt escapes, quite easily apparently and continues to be mad at the rich for not fighting their own fights and his friends losing their livliehoods over it. Sure, makes sense. Newt doesn’t care about Slave rights or anything, he has none. It isn’t until a Slave helps save his sick son.
But even then, it is extremely awkward in this movie, even when he is living with just runaways. They never get close. When it is a giant army of Confederates and the few slaves, people are still dicks to slaves. It isn’t until one of the more cringey movie moments that I have ever seen that things start to change. When Newt’s character gives a speech about how basically everyone there is someone’s slave, no matter the color and they shouldn’t be jerks. He used a bit more “colorful” language, but that speech helped change everyone’s mind, albeit temporarily, to work together towards a goal.
In terms of modern comparisons, it reminded me of the All Lives Matter backlash to Black Lives Matter. This movie argues that the poor southern farmers were treated just as bad as slaves, but then goes on to show that technically the slaves still have it worse. I don’t know if the Moses character is real at all, but they put all of the slavery baggage on him, as the other members of the camp apparently don’t have lines and I barely heard two of their names mentioned. It was such a shit way of trying to get us emotionally invested in the slavery story, when they only put personality in him and Rachel. We also find out he has a wife and kid somewhere in “Texas” (again, we are in Mississippi), yet they are able to reconnect extremely easy post war with zero explanation as to how.
This kid is killed off in the first 10 minutes and gets more promo pictures than other people in teh film.
There are more problems with this movie outside of making it super white focused. I can’t remember when, but early on in the movie, we get a title card that says 85 YEARS LATER… and we are shown a court room setting where the whiteness of a person is being put on trial, because his great grandmother might have been Rachel, making him part black, and thus his marriage illegal. This was a real trial and actually true, but HOLY CRAP, this has no reason to be in this movie at all.
The “future” scenes do nothing for the rest of the film and they keep coming back, breaking up the plot and slowing it even more down. Whoever decided to add this constantly interrupting subplot/finale to the film should be fired from whatever future film jobs they have, because it was such a poor choice.
The Confederate “bad guys” and post War bad dude are basically cartoon villains, just missing some finger twirling of their mustaches. The film is especially insulting over the “peanut scenes” in the last twenty minutes.
Oh, and guess what. The film doesn’t end with the end of their rebellion or the end of the civil war. It goes over another year or so after the fact, during early KKK period and reconstruction. Why? Because they feel like it. Because the ending drags on and on, for over thirty minutes. The filmmakers had no idea how to end this film and practically none of it matter for the overall story they were trying to tell.
Fuck, Free State of Jones. I can’t believe it ended up being so blah. There were good moments in there and with 45 or so less minutes, plus more character development for some other characters, and this would have been fantastic. This film makes me less excited for The Birth of a Nation, which is stupid, I know.
I’m not angry at your Free State of Jones. I’m just really disappointed.
1 out of 4.
Oh sorry, here is an extra picture. It is really hard to find any of Moses or Rachel, let alone any of the other black characters in the film. This is basically the best I can do (without huge watermarks), even by googling the movie title with actor names. Shit, if you google the movie and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, the main love interest, you will find barely anything from the actual film and some pictures of her from Belle.
The director was Gary Ross, an old white guy who has only directed a handful of films. His first one was Pleasantville, which I love and adore, but I guess it makes sense. In that movie, he told the problem of Racism in America using only white people. In Free State of Jones, he basically just does that again, but in a more insulting way.