Compared to the US, British knowledge of the American Civil War in 1861-1865 is expected maybe to not be as strong as in the country in which it took place.
An integral subject in their schooling, the history period in that part of the world isn’t usually touched upon here. This piece of history does have a large importance and through mediums such as film, everyone around the world can learn what happened, why and the effects of such significant events.
Free State of Jones is inspired by the life of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and his armed rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi. Beginning after the Battle of Corinth in 1862, the war is already bloody. With opening shots displaying troops marching over fallen soldiers, their bodies were blown apart and even a startling images of one body with a missing face, the film doesn’t ease in gently. And neither does it with the plot. A certain degree of background knowledge is required to understand what the civil war is and why it’s taking place as this isn’t explained. The focus rather is on Knight saving people as a nurse in the Confederate Army. It’s not a local teenage farm boy he knows is killed in battle despite his strong efforts in protecting him, does he return home as a deserter, carrying the boy home back to his mother.
Unable to stay in his home, Knight hides out in the swamp, joining a group of runaway slaves including Moses played beautifully by Mahershala Ali.
Although McConaughey is a strong performer, Ali steals the show. His understated performance really communicates with those watching without unnecessary melodrama. His simple and delicate presence doesn’t do anything to demand attention and yet this is what makes him so captivating. It’s a pity he doesn’t have more screen time.
The majority of our time is spent with McConaughey, which is by no means a chore, however, with such a familiar face, it can’t help but feel a little stale. It would’ve perhaps been a lot more exciting to see a fairly newer name tackle the role.
Something that also perhaps misses the mark slightly is the choice to include flash forwards to a court case of a descendant of Knight and his second African-American partner, fighting for his right for his ‘inter-racial’ marriage. The timing and pacing of when these are used throughout the plot doesn’t fit or flow and although there is a point to be made, it’s not established well enough to add to the film what perhaps what was intended.
Overall, Free State of Jones is an emotive and poignant film owing much to the story but also some toward certain noteworthy performances generally from the supporting cast, who are the highlight. Although perhaps not unmissable in terms of execution, the story itself is one to be heard.