American pop culture’s relationship to the Civil War has always been problematic. Especially as regards the Confederacy, there’s a dangerous tendency in popular imagination to romanticize a war and a culture that, in reality, was — in the words of Slate writer Jamelle Bouie — “a brutal archipelago of slave labor camps governed by an aristocracy of planters and slave traders.”
So changing our popular narrative about this era in our nation’s history means being more honest about the past. This is the admirable goal of Free State of Jones, a film about a real-life Mississippi farmer who led a rebellion against the Confederacy, made up of fellow farmers, escaped slaves, and army deserters.
Unfortunately, despite the best intentions, Free State of Jones is an overlong trudge through the Civil War and into Reconstruction. It makes strides towards de-romanticizing the war, even exploring some darker elements that don’t often make it into films like this one. But ultimately, writer-director Gary Ross’ attempt to capture the story’s epic scope tries to cram too much into a space that just can’t fit it all in.
Free State of Jones’ commitment to unmasking the brutalities of the Civil War starts before we’re introduced to Matthew McConaughey’s rabble-rousing Newt Knight — we’re placed right in the middle of a gruesome conflict, complete with battlefield amputations and soldiers holding their guts in. This brutal perspective never lets up, whether it’s on the battlefield, the plantation, or through the horrific actions of the KKK.
Knight, a medic, is spurred to action after seeing too many friends die. He understands that the only cause he and his fellow soldiers are fighting for is to keep exploitative plantation owners rich. Knight deserts the army to defend his family’s farm from resource-hungry Confederate officers. While on the run, he falls in with a group of escaped slaves led by the change-minded Moses (House of Cards’ Mahershala Ali, in a standout performance).
From there, Knight adds support from fellow farmers and Confederate deserters to create an outlaw state that allows the group to take care of their own, and ensure freedom for black and white alike. The film continues the story after the Civil War, showing the dissolution of Knight’s “free state,” and the rampant exploitation of and violence against freed slaves in the South — from plantation owners and from some of the same men who once stood beside them.
It’s a great story. But director Ross doesn’t know how to tell it. Obvious story beats get over-explained, while parts that require explanation get none at all. The style is all over the place, jumping from big title cards announcing the date, to flash-forwards, to Ken Burns-style archival photos. The inclusion and placement of these elements is wildly inconsistent, and the film never fully commits to any of them.
Free State of Jones contains so much story that it might have been better served in a longer format. A limited series, for example, might allow for more insight into the minds of its characters, or provide a less clunky historical context. But as it is, the film is a mess. The story of Newt Knight is one way to deconstruct the cultural myths of the antebellum South. But it deserves a much better vehicle than this one to really make an impact.