There could not have been a more poignant time for this film to reach audiences. With the ‘Oscars So White’ controversy earlier this year and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign, Free State of Jones is a painful reminder that racism has plagued the United States of America since its inception and unfortunately, it is still in the foreground of society today.
Based on a true story, Free State of Jones sees Matthew McConaughey lead us through the Civil War era as Newton Knight, a poor farmer serving as a medic in the Confederate Army. Becoming increasingly disenchanted, he deserts the war in 1862 and returns home to Jones County, Mississippi, where he forges an alliance with runaway slaves and other farmers to lead a rebellion against the Confederacy.
The film is written and directed by Gary Ross, who also directed The Hunger Games. He creates an intensely realist depiction of the Civil War where it is clear that there is no glory to be had, only pain and loss. Within the first few seconds we are thrown into brutal scenes of fighting, injuries and death. The script is simple, adding to the realism with short conversations between the characters caught up in the misery. Ross focuses on capturing the solemnity in the characters’ faces with long close up shots which say more than words ever could.
The film uses flash-forward to show us the effects of the War 85 years later, as the great-grandson of Newton Knight stands trial for breaching Mississippi’s Segregation laws. The flash-forwards were not used as much as they could have, which could make it confusing at times, but contribute to a powerful ending.
Clocking in at 2 hours 20 minutes, Free State of Jones loses its pace slightly in the middle as its tries to deal with the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Segregation. At times it does feel more like a history documentary. But it is definitely as must-see, not just for fans of American history but for anyone who wishes to see a powerful representation of humanity and destruction that still resonates today.
Image: David Torcivia; Flickr.com