Woodrow Wilson described D.W. Griffith’s notorious Civil War epic Birth of a Nation as “writing history with lightning.” Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones, which covers roughly the same period as Griffith’s film, is more like writing history with index cards. Diligent and informative but also fragmented and inert, it plays like a series of scenes and notes for a longer, more fleshed-out movie.
It’s easy to see the appeal of the story, though. In 1863, a poor Mississippi farmer named Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) led a rebellion of deserters and escaped slaves against the Confederacy, waging guerrilla warfare from the swamps and eventually declaring their county the “Free State of Jones.” After the war, Knight moved away from white society with his new wife, a war ally and former slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). He also tried to help with the Reconstruction effort, but soon saw that the old racist laws were simply being replaced by new racist laws. The real-life Knight lived well into the 20th Century; he died in 1922 having fathered 14 children. (Some of these were kids from his previous marriage to a white woman, Serena, played here by Keri Russell. In what may be a sop to contemporary mores, the film shows her with only one child.)
On its surface, Free State of Jones seems like yet another story of a Great White Savior — a tale to salve, stir and reassure liberal hearts. That said, it's a fascinating piece of history, and it’s to the filmmakers' credit that they don’t falsely portray Newton Knight as a warrior for racial justice straight out of the gate — we watch his consciousness develop. This was a man enraged at first not at the racial politics of the South, but at its class inequities. (By most accounts, this is also factually accurate: Most of the residents of Jones County were much too poor to own slaves, and thus suspicious of the Confederacy.)
When we first meet Newt, he’s serving as a reluctant nurse in the Confederate army in 1862, immersed in the gore and horror of the battlefield. He’s suspicious of the war (“I’m tired of helping them fight for their cotton,” he rails to his comrades, amid protestations that the war is really about “honor”), but he winds up deserting almost by accident, as he tries to save his fresh-faced nephew Daniel from the savagery of combat. Upon returning home, Newt discovers that Confederate soldiers have raided his and other families’ lands, seizing grain and hogs and corn, condemning them to starvation. Meanwhile, a recently-passed “20 Negro Law,” deeming that anyone who owns 20 slaves can avoid military service, confirms to Newt and his neighbors that this is a case of “a poor man’s fighting a rich man’s war”: Hard-luck farmers are dying to maintain an institution that only benefits rich plantation owners.
After a run-in with the hounds of the local military police, Newt finds himself hiding out in the woods with a band of escaped slaves, secretly ministered to by Rachel, still in the service of her abusive white master. Among the runaways is Moses (Mahershala Ali), who jokes of a dog that bit Newt, “You must taste like we do, the way it latched onto you.” Slowly, the group becomes self-sufficient out there in the swamps, as others find their way to them; after the Southern defeat at Vicksburg, their ranks swell seemingly overnight.
Ross is a director whose career has encompassed both soft-focus Oscar bait and franchise fare. But as he proved with the first Hunger Games, he’s better with action movies than he is with prestige pictures. (Some will disagree: Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, for all their musty reverence, were critical and awards-season successes.) Early on in Free State of Jones, as the story remains grounded in Newt’s experiences of combat and the urgency of his desertion and initial rebellion, we’re immersed in this world. McConaughey's wide eyes and tense gestures express a compelling mixture of bewilderment and fear.
But as events accelerate — as the Confederacy is defeated and Reconstruction begins, along with the violent rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the eventual passage of the 15th Amendment — Ross loses the thread. The movie is gradually overwhelmed by onscreen title cards doling out historical context, along with the occasional informative and/or inspirational speech. I applaud the director’s thoroughness — he doesn’t want this to be another Hollywoodized bulldozing of complexity and veracity. But I would have gladly given up all those onscreen facts for made-up scenes of Knight and his brethren interacting with one another, demonstrating what this rebellion and freedom meant for them.
The clutter doesn’t end there. Ross often cuts to a 1948 court case, when Newt and Rachel’s great-grandson was convicted under Mississippi’s miscegenation laws for marrying a white woman. That's also an interesting story, but it's doled out in flashes — grace notes, really — so that these characters too are denied their agency and individuality, becoming momentary pawns in the film’s attempt to illustrate a historical process instead of a human fact. It’s a bold move narratively, demonstrating that the past is never really past. But if so, why choose the 1940s? Why not show history in dialogue with today?
Ross does throw in an occasional shot or moment that suggests what Free State of Jones had the potential to be: a group of mothers calmly walking to cut down the bodies of their hanged sons; a quiet exchange right after the war, when Rachel, now finally able to live with Knight, admires the feather bed she’ll sleep in for the first time in her life. And even as the film loses McConaughey’s physicality, relegating him to speeches and canned bursts of righteous anger, Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali manage some scenes of real tenderness; too bad we don’t see more of them.
Nevertheless, Ross’ failure is a noble one: He seems obsessed with this story, and wants to tell the whole thing. But he doesn’t have the time or narrative juice. He forsakes the dramatic imagination required to make history come alive — to find the subtlety, the intimacy and lived-in experience that will humanize the struggle and the pageantry. Instead, we get mere fragments and shadows of the film Free State of Jones could have been.