By GAETANA CALDWELL-SMITH
“Free State of Jones,” directed by Gary Carr.
“The Free State of Jones” is based on a true Civil War story, a little known story, because its subject matter is in a controversial gray area.
Here we have Newton Knight (a spot-on Matthew McConaughey at his scraggly, unkempt, bearded best), a Confederate soldier—a nurse, no less—who deserts. Although married to Serena (Keri Russell, in a thankless role) with a toddler, he comes to live with and eventually marry “in the eyes of the Lord” a Black woman, Rachel (a believable Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a house slave and healer.
At one point, Knight is being chased as he runs through the wilderness by what one character tells him are “nigger dogs,” dogs that slave catchers use to hunt down runaways (the “N” word is used profusely throughout). He ends up hiding out in the swamp in an area occupied by runaway slaves who come to accept him. “Horses can’t handle the swamps,” Moses, the head of the hideout tells him.
Knight reaches an epiphany when he realizes that poor men are fighting for the rich so that the rich can stay rich and the poor poor, which resonates today. People are people, and all people should be free. He does something about it by leading poor white farmers and slaves in an extraordinary armed rebellion against the Confederacy.
In effect, he launched an uprising that led Jones County, Miss., to secede from the Confederacy, creating the Free State of Jones. Knight continued his struggle into Reconstruction, distinguishing him as a compelling, if controversial, figure of defiance.
Carr created an interesting, but whip-lashing change of scene by suddenly fast-forwarding 85 years to a Mississippi courtroom where his very white-looking grandson, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is being tried for miscegenation as he is married to a “pure” white woman. Court records had revealed that he is the son of Knight and Rachel’s offspring. The law was not repealed until 1967.
This is a suspenseful, well acted, beautifully shot film about a little known segment of history and of one man’s futuristic vision regarding human beings and their ability to live together freely and peacefully.