The guns keep firing, men fall, but those left march on. The opening sequence of Free State of Jones sets the theme that spans the full length of director Gary Ross’s 2 hours and twenty minutes of running time: relentless struggle.
It is 1862, and the American Civil War is raging. Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), disillusioned with the rich man’s war, deserts and forms a small guerrilla army consisting of poor farmers, their families and runaway slaves. In addition to fighting the Confederates, Knight later struggles against prejudice as he tries to live in a mixed-race community.
The movie, based on a true story, strives to remain true to historical fact. Yet, it’s intent to make comment on so many issues – including class divide, racism and politics – spreads the narrative too thin, with many scenes coming across as unfinished. The latter half of the film focuses on the racism that persisted in the southern states of America after the abolition of slavery. However, the concept that poor whites are not much higher in the social ladder than blacks is acknowledged all the way until the credits roll. This leaves the audience questioning which issue the narrative deems more important – racism or mistreated white people.
Just as the audience starts to settle in to the historical timeline, Ross throws in a curve ball when we find ourselves cast 85 years into the future. A court case ensues, in which a descendant of Newton Knight wants his marriage to a white woman legally recognised. This switch between the two time periods occurs throughout and ultimately stretches the ambitions of this movie too far, revealing cracks in its structure.
One of the redeeming features of this film is the acting: McConaughey is brilliant as a dirty, rugged, unkempt rebel and convincingly portrays the pioneering values that Knight displayed in that era. This role, along with the others he’s taken on in recent years, clearly shows his fantastic range. Other stunning performances come from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who plays Rachel, and Mahershala Ali who plays Moses, both of whom are runaway slaves. These actors masterfully convey the determination and pride that these two people evidently possessed. Unfortunately, the multiple cutaway scenes leave viewers with the feeling that the actors didn’t have the chance to really develop their characters. In spite of the hit and miss narrative structure of the film, it’s worth noting that the cinematography is excellent. The wide, open shots of the desolate Mississippi countryside epitomises the lonely battle fought by Knight and his comrades. Scenes that take place in the gloomy swamp where the guerrilla army hide excellently mirror the mood of the characters; the emotions of injustice and rage are almost visible in the reflections from the muddy brown water.
Free state of Jones accurately tells the true story of Knight and his endeavours. However, with so many loose threads of narrative that don’t tie up, it seems to rush to an unfinished end; this seems to reflect the current issues in America, regarding movements like Black Lives Matter. Importantly, the film leaves you asking the question, how much have things changed?