Free State of Jones is an absorbing historical drama that lifts the veil on the Confederate side of the American Civil War.
Director Gary Ross approaches the story with a refreshing respect for historical accuracy that proves both the strength and occasional weakness of the film. While the authenticity provides real gravitas to the narrative, the historical stills and didactic tone of the piece make for some unnecessarily slow pacing at times.
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a southern farmer whose growing awareness of the injustices around conscription, war taxes and racism leads him to declare a ‘free state’ of deserters, impoverished farmers and escaped slaves in defiance of the authorities, growing to cover a substantial slab of Mississippi. Thankfully, the film does not seek to portray Knight as idealist with a revolutionary bent, but rather an everyman whose basic morality sees him transformed gradually into a hero by his circumstances.
McConaughey gives a dignified and charismatic performance, although the film never really allows us to probe the depth of the man portrayed here. At the emotional heart of the film is the powerful performance of Mahershala Ali as escaped slave Moses Washington, who comes to symbolise many of the ideas explored by the story.
Running parallel to the main plot is the tale of Knight’s descendant in the mid- twentieth century; at first this seems to interrupt the fluency of the narrative but proves to demonstrate that, despite the win over slavery in the Civil War, racial prejudice has a way of persisting.
The film is also a rather prescient reminder that the political party currently in the thrall of Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric was once the progressive voice of racial tolerance. Free State of Jones shows that the path of history can be strangely circuitous and we would do well to learn from this.
Reviewed by Matthew Trainor