Maybe some feature documentary director will be inspired to make a movie about Knight and the Free State of Jones that actually works as a movie.
There’s probably an interesting movie to be made about the life of Newton Knight, but you won’t find it anywhere in the two-plus hours of Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones, which feels like a cross between an illustrated lecture and a television miniseries edited severely for a theatrical release. The result is a film that is fairly crammed with stuff—battles, fires, noble speeches, innumerable characters (to use the term loosely) outfitted in period clothes—yet which feels very empty and inconsequential.
The title refers to an integrated settlement in Jones County, Miss., established by Knight after the Civil War, and it also has a story worth telling: but you won’t learn much about it in this film. Instead, you get a fairly standard-issue biopic about a white savior, Knight (Matthew McConaughey, exercising his best piercing stare), who preaches about the evils of inequality while conveniently failing to notice that, for people who are not white men, race and gender also play determining factors in their lives.
The story begins in 1862, with Knight serving as a field medic in the battle of Corinth. Ross wastes no time confronting the audience with the horrors of war, with up-close shots of people being blown apart and of a bloody field hospital where limbs are amputated without the benefit of anesthetic. When his son (the first of many underdeveloped characters) dies in his arms, Knight deserts and takes the boy’s body back to his farm. There, he discovers Confederate cavalry have taken nearly everything of worth, and are coming back for what they missed, leaving his wife Serena (yet another ridiculously underdeveloped character, played by Keri Russell) and the remaining children with the prospect of nothing to eat over the winter months.
What’s a man to do? Arm the wife and kids, plant some dummy guns in the upstairs windows, and stand down the cavalry when they come back, of course. It all works marvelously, as so many things do in this movie (which also has a weird obsession with women and guns, although there’s very little interest in developing women as characters). After a few more improbable events, Knight finds himself living with some escaped slaves in the midst of a bayou, which has the advantage of being beyond the reach of the cavalry. There, he meets Moses (Mahershala Ali), whom he frees from a bizarre metal cage locked around his neck, and begins a romance with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), with whom he eventually has children.
The descendants of that relationship (not a legal marriage, as Mississippi law outlawed interracial marriage until the 1967 Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia) figure in another plotline that is bizarrely tacked on to this already overstuffed movie. Jumping ahead 85 years, Knight’s grandson is being tried for breaking the anti-miscegenation las by marrying a white woman while he himself is not, under the “one drop” theory of race, considered to be white. I suspect there was a plot line about him believing he was descended from Serena, not Rachel, but all we are left with is the discovery of a family Bible (a device straight out of melodrama) indicating that, by Mississippi law, he does not qualify as white. We also get no real indication of why he and his wife did not simply move north (she says something about not knowing anyone there, but seriously? A man serves five years in jail because his wife won’t leave her social connections?), or any indication of whether he meant to use himself as a test case to challenge laws restricting interracial marriage, the way the Scopes Trial challenged restrictions on the teaching of evolution.
The one good thing I can say about Free State of Jones is that it may interest people in an aspect of American history that tends to get left out of the history books. It seems like a topic fairly begging documentary treatment, and maybe some feature director will also be inspired to make a movie about Knight and the Free State of Jones that actually works as a movie. | Sarah Boslaugh