Review: “Free State Of Jones Is A Messy, Maudlin History Lesson

**WARNING – Spoilers lie ahead. Tread carefully!**

Maybe Hollywood should re-think its approach to the Civil War historical drama.

As the new movie “Free State Of Jones” once again proves, these movies, with few exceptions — like “Glory” — tend to become exercises in exorcising the demons of American racism exhibited by whites against minorities. And not even Matthew McConaughey and director Gary Ross could prevent FSOJ from falling into the same trap.

FSJ posterThe movie is based on the real life of Southern Unionist, Rebel and Confederate deserter Newton Knight. Knight and a group of deserters from the South formed an outlaw band during the Civil War that opposed the Confederacy in the area around Jones County, Mississippi. This group also included various runaway slaves.

Knight is an incredibly controversial figure in American history. Some see him as a noble rebel who refused to fight a war he did not believe in and took a stand. Others see him as a traitor and outlaw who manipulated others for his own purposes.

Regardless of where you stand on Knight’s place in history, he makes a fascinating subject for a biopic. And McConaughey, whose southern drawl, gaunt appearance and wildman beard is dead-on in the role, does a fine job as the main character. It’s kind of remarkable that the same actor in this role also did stiffs like “Fool’s Gold.” What, you don’t remember that one?

What about “Failure To Launch?” Maybe this will jog your memory.

My point is, he’s done one of the great hollywood career turnarounds of all time. And he should be proud of his work in FSOJ.

He deserved better support from his director.

Gary Ross has made some excellent films, like “Seabiscuit,” and yes, “The Hunger Games.” C’mon, you liked it. Admit it!

The problem here is that Ross seems to be crafting this film straight out of the #WhiteGuilt moviemaking handbook.

Gallant white guy as hero? check.

Noble black man? check.

One-dimensional villainous white racists? check.

I could go on and on.

But it’s frustrating to see the choices made as they unfold onscreen and wonder why they seemed to take the predictable storytelling path.

Aside: I think I’ve had my fill of movies that go out of their way to show the brutality and obscene bloodshed on the battlefield. I don’t need to say any more severed limbs, blown-out faces or spilled human intestines to know that war is hell. Maybe having kids has made me soft, or age has weakened my stomach for such stuff. But man, some of the scenes in FSOJ were tough to handle.

Anyhoo, those slavery-era film tropes I just mentioned … there is one scene where Knight frees a slave named Moses (played by Mahershala Ali) from an awful looking metal harness around his neck. The entire scene is played out in condescending fashion, to once again reinforce that stereotype of the ‘white man who rescues the poor black slave.’ I was incredibly frustrated by that and other scenes where the runaway slaves were mistreated by whites, and they barely raised a word in resistance … even after they had worked together in Knight’s outlaw band of resistance fighters.

Look, it’s not like these films are really historically accurate; that’s why they say they’re ‘based on actual events.’ If they would be sticklers for accuracy, they would have included that Knight had a child with his second wife, the former slave Rachel.

[Spoiler: They did NOT include this in the movie]

So if you’re going to take creative license, how about taking the less patronizing approach?

My other big problems with the movie revolved around the unfurling of the plot. Out of nowhere, we flash-forward 85 years to a court case in Mississippi. A young man is being tried for breaking the state’s segregation laws by marrying a white man. We learn through a series of infrequent flashbacks — and major exposition — that the young man, who looks like a typical southern white guy, is actually 1/8th black because he’s the grandson of Newton Knight and his second wife, the former black slave Rachel.

This was an actual case that had major ramifications in Mississippi. And it’s quite fascinating, but here it’s just a very minor interlude that disrupts the story we’re watching unfold back in post-Civil War Mississippi. It was distracting, and considering the film feels quite a bit longer than its 139-minute running time, maybe could have been edited out completely.

But it seems that Ross was torn between telling a dramatization of Newton Knight’s story and doing a documentary on the times. He mixes in archival photos of the Civil War and its victims, of the small towns decimated by the fighting, and fills in certain gaps with historical liner notes on the screen.

As a huge history buff, I enjoyed these little bits of information and frankly, astounding photographs. But if you want to make something for the historical record, make a documentary.

You can’t do both and do the story justice. By the time the movie meanders to its lackluster conclusion, you can almost feel the director throwing in the towel. He wraps it up with a long information dump on screen. It had me wishing that this had been a limited series on HBO, AMC, or even History.

It’s source material would have been better served.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Review: “Free State Of Jones Is A Messy, Maudlin History Lesson

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