Film review: Free state of Jones

I have not been writing a lot about movies lately, but not because I have not been going to the movies, lately.
I saw many of the 2016 Oscar nominees: “The martian”, “The revenant”, “The big short”, “Brooklyn”, “Concussion”, “Joy”. I did not shy away from blockbusters (“Spectre”, “Captain America: civil war”); I did not snub major productions (“Everest”, “Eddie the eagle”, “Money monster”, “The nice guys”) or miss intellectual highlihts (“Machbeth”, “Hail, Caesar!”).

The one thing all these movies had in common: they all were preceded by the promo trailer of “Free state of Jones”.
A trailer so captivating and so promising, that when the movie itself came out 2 weeks ago, I almost ran to the theatre.



As the poster says, the movie is based on the “incredible true story” of Newton Knight, a poor Mississippi farmer who is temporarily serving as a nurse for the Confederacy Army during the Civil War.
We understand his character at the very first scene, where he strips a boy from his trooper uniform in order to pass him as an officer to the doctors, because officers get treated better and sooner.
So we’re not surprised when we hear him say that this is “a poor man’s fighting a rich man’s war” while discussing with his fellow soldiers the new law that allows Confederacy members to opt out of conscription if they provide 20 slaves.
The conversation is interrupted by the arrival of Daniel, a young, frail lad from his own Jones county, whose family clearly didn’t own 20 slaves. Newt feels that Daniel doesn’t stand a chance in the ongoing battle, and decides to take care of him. But his plans are immediately overrun by Daniel’s naive death, and Newt decides to desert and bring the body back to Jones county. It is 1862.
Daniel’s death provides more insight on Newt’s views on life: Newt’s buddy Will says that Daniel died with honor, and Newt replies “No, Will, he just died.”
Back home too, things are rather bleak, with Confederate army regularly requisitioning anything for the war effort, leaving empty houses and farms and fields behind. Of course, Newt cannot stand this and he helps one woman and her three daughters (all under 10 years of age) to take up their guns and repel the soldiers.
As a result, as both a deserter and an agitator, Newt must leave his home, his wife Serena and their newborn child, and retreat to a mangrove swamp. The Confederate cavalry cannot easily ride in the swamp, that therefore is a refuge for black slaves escaped from their masters. After an initial mistrust they get along quite well, because Newt is white but he’s not a racist.
Meanwhile Serena feels threatened by the officers and leaves.
As the war get worse for the Confederate side, many more deserters find their way to the swamp, and form a community that it’s more interested in protecting their local communities from the army’s pillage than in the political aspect of the Confederacy.
Under Newt’s charismatic guidance, they wage guerrilla war against the Confederate authorities in Jones County, eventually proclaiming themselves as the Free State of Jones, raising the United States flag over the county courthouse in Ellisville and declaring loyalty to the Union. It is spring 1864.
Time flies, the Civil War ends, USA laws against slavery are enforced and first, and then not so much: freed slaves are still bought and sold but this time under the category of “apprentice”. Moses, one of Newt’s freed black friends, picks up a career of activist for black people’s rights, registering them to vote and organizing meetings (with Newt always present), until the newborn Ku Klux Klan assassinates him.
Meanwhile, Newt takes up a former slave named Rachel as his common-law wife and move to Soso, where he is later joined by his estranged legal wife Serena. We see the family expanding, and this is important because troughout the movie, we see flashes of the trial, held in the 40’s (yes, the 1940’s) where one of Newt’s descendant ends up in jail for marrying a white woman. He’s guilty of having black ancestors according to the one drop rule.


Is there a new canon of forgotten Civil War stories, after “12 years a slave”?
“Free state of Jones” starts well, keeping up with the expectations raised by the trailer: it begins with a Civil War battlefield scene that made me think of “Dances with wolves”, and then it turns into a fine movie about a gang of outlaws fighting for their families and their farms, as 19th century Robin Hood.
After the outlaws disband at the end of the war tough, the movie loses his pace, probably because it has to cover too many years to do any justice to the way too many events that take place.
For the last hour of the 2hrs and 20 mins, I was earnestly bored and often found myself muttering “OK, I got the message, I did, I swear!”
I don’t think that this is a problem of the movie, of its screenplay or of its direction.
The problem is him, Newt. He’s not an unsung, noble hero, he’s not a white guy who endangered his life for the enslaved blacks. He’s just an ordinary man who ended up doing an extraordinary thing, pushed by the circumstances.
Matthew McConaughey portrays him finely, with that intense stare of his, as a man of few, very righteous words (uttered in a strict Southern accent…), not a man of displayed passions, not even for his family.
So you don’t feel for him, as you did for James Stewart in “Shenandoah”, say.
I appreciated the director’s choice not to show the violence of the slavery system (no whipping, no beating, no rape scenes), easy shortcuts for Oscar awards.
I did not appreciate the flash forwards of the trial, ’cause they interrupted the flow of the script, and as I said, the final part of the movie was already lacking rhythm… and besides I got the message, I swear I did: even after the Civil War, life was not easy for the blacks in the South.
Great cinematography.

Mark: 5 / 10 (7 for the first part, 3 for the second part)

Further reading: the Smithsonian magazine online


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