Movie Review: The Free State Of Jones: Compelling Tale Of A Rebel With A Cause

Cast: Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin 

Director: Gary Ross

Set during the American Civil War when the US faced disintegration on the issue of slavery, this historical drama stars Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, the Mississippi farmer who challenged the secessionist

Southern Confederacy to become a civil rights activist, a rebel in the cause of freedom and eventually set up an independent enclave.

Director Gary( Seabiscuit,The Hunger Games) Ross’s biopic takes an insightful look at one of the most interesting aspects of American history. Knight is a faith-driven, righteous soul who fights the Klu Klux  Klan, but he’s also a curiously complicated man inasmuch as he was generous, tender and could, even so, kill the enemy on hallowed ground (reminding me of the murder of Thomas Beckett inside an English cathedral)

 The defender of blacks (and the poor ) he cohabits with his grandfather’s house slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and takes her as his common law wife violating the ban on interracial marriages- that he is separated from his wife Serena (Keri Russell) during this phase would  not be a mitigating factor for a devout Christian. (Aren’t frailties of the flesh less grievous than other transgressions from the Decalogue?)’

In 1862 anno domini, the Confederate Army draft exempts wealthy plantation/slave owners and Knight and his confreres from  Jones County are loathe to fight a war on behalf of the rich ( millionaires like Trump and Bush also avoided serving in the US Army)

 Knight discovers that many of the Confederate soldiers have been exploiting the poor, especially the women and children. when he fights the robbers, he goes AWOL and hides in the swamps with some runaway slaves and fellow deserters. Home alone, his wife Serena decides to leave Mississippi with their child.

Knight’s fight is successful in three counties and his mixed race soldiers declare they are now citizens of the Free State of Jones, which guarantees the right to property, to equality and also proclaims the idea of the immorality of slavery enshrined in the Biblical injunction that “no man can own a child of God.” ( Notwithstanding Biblical proscriptions, the ancient Jews owned slaves, thereby attracting the chastisement of the Prophets. But Jewish slave owners were mostly benign, their slaves even called them Father )

Knight’s  intense relationship with the ex-slave Rachel is enabled by the fact that she’d saved his son’s life and also helped him and other deserters in the  swamp. When Serena returns years later, they all live together like one big happy family which is much more than can be said for Thomas Jefferson who never acknowledged the slave-mistress  who bore him a large brood.

The war ends, but not the battle for freedom and director Ross delineates the struggle by the former slaves to survive in a racist society and hopefully reconstruct the racial fissures to gain  the rights  assured by law, such as social integration and universal franchise. Lest we forget, the American Constitution asserts that all men are born equal and possess the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. “The Democratic Party has come a long way today, but back then it would block blacks right to vote!

Ross’s film doesn’t stop at the 1860-70s but flash forwards to the mid 20th century trial of Knight’s great  grandson, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) who was prosecuted for violating Mississippi’s laws against inter-racial marriage.Meandering though this film is, the authenticity of gritty narrative, top-level camerawork,production design and music and above all, McConaughey’s bravura performance, make The Free State of Jones, a thought-provoking watch.

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