Hate — as no one reading this needs to be reminded — clings for life to this country like a cat with its claws sunk into the side of a space shuttle as it screams towards the stratosphere. So while the inert, inelegant and (wait for it) somewhat problematic “Free State of Jones” may not be a valuable contribution to the canon of American historical epics, the shapelessness of its story is worth celebrating for how palpably it conveys the tenacity of prejudice.
In the wake of emancipation, a nefarious “apprenticeship” system is enacted in order to resume the tradition of slavery by another name; from the ruins of the Confederate Army, the Ku Klux Klan rises up to lynch a race of newly liberated citizens. And all the while, a brusque and bearded Matthew McConaughey rides against injustice from deep within the swampy heart of Mississippi, punctuating a half-century of historical footnotes with the tip of his bayonet.
Sure to be a tough sit for anyone who’s grown impatient with stories of white saviors, “Free State of Jones” is the second film to be made about the life and times of Mississippi’s favorite renegade southern Unionist Newton Knight (the first being George Marshall’s 1948 melodrama, “Tap Roots”), and also most likely the last. Beginning with the 1862 Battle of Corinth and stretching all the way to the middle of the 20th century at such a slow pace that it eventually feels as though it’s being told in real time, this awkward war saga traces Knight’s remarkable evolution from a pacifist farmer to the leader of a well-regulated militia who liberated the length of Jones County, Mississippi for all men.
Written and directed by “Seabiscuit” helmer Gary Ross, “Free State of Jones” is structured with the haphazard flow of a miniseries that’s been cleaved down to feature length, and shot with the boxed-in functionality of basic cable television; it would be a misfire even if it weren’t completely tone-deaf to the current climate. As it stands, the well-intentioned film is most compelling as an argument for the value of Nate Parker’s Sundance-winning “The Birth of a Nation,” an unconvincing Nat Turner biopic that nevertheless pulses with the righteous urgency of the voiceless oppressed.
In a genre that continues to be defined by the likes of “Glory” and “Gettysburg,” a bad movie about slaves in self-motivated revolt is better than a bad movie about the white men who fought for their freedom. “Schindler’s List” is a masterpiece, but if 95% of Holocaust movies were about Germans who grew a conscience — movies that turned the Jews into the supporting characters of their own genocide — people would have good reason to be upset.
Of course, there will always be a genuine value to humanistic stories about the power of empathy, and no idea could resonate more strongly in contemporary America than the notion that we’re all in this together. At times, McConaughey’s Knight even comes off as a proto-Bernie bro on horseback, arguing that no man should ever stay poor so that another man can be rich (and, like Bernie, his message that white people should be allies rather than obstacles often falls on deaf ears).
Unfortunately, over the course of 145 minutes, Ross doesn’t always find the most cogent way for his hero to express such high-minded principles. At one point in the film, after Knight has amassed a militia of fellow deserters and freed slaves, he tells his diverse group of freedom fighters that “Everybody is just somebody else’s nigger.” And, uh… hmm. You can appreciate what he means — solidarity! — but it’s one thing to be forcibly conscripted into an army whose soldiers are at war with basic human rights, and quite another to be considered property under the eyes of the law.
The “problematic” elements of the film would be easier to overlook or contextualize if the movie told a compelling story, but “Free State of Jones” shambles through a few dark chapters of American history with all the zeal of a kid doing his homework. McConaughey plays Knight like history’s greatest badass, a fearless killer pacifist who would sooner take his own life than take a shower; his performance is all surface and no soul. Ross doesn’t do the star any favors, fundamentally diluting his character from the start: How cheap — and cheapening — to invent a nephew for Knight to avenge when the vile Twenty Negro Law was what pushed the actual man to action.
Beyond that, Ross consistently reduces Knight to a mechanism, more of an impassioned historical tour guide than the protagonist of a would-be blockbuster (particularly during the final portions of the film, which trudge into the post-war years with so much on-screen text that you spend more of the last act reading the movie than you do watching it). Knight was a unique American hero, and remains largely overlooked because of that, but his characterization here is so generic that he might as well have wandered out of an Ed Zwick epic. He’s even given a loyal “native” to befriend and a slimy, red-bearded Confederate colonel to serve as his villain.
Too robust to sink into the rhythms of a character study, but too financially limited to tell a story that matches the sweep of its director’s vision, “Free State of Jones” is a film divided against itself, and it cannot stand.
Ross’ heart lies in the history, and the dramatic trappings he uses to gussy it up all smack of apathy. Knight’s first wife (Keri Russell) and the son they had together are bizarrely relegated to the sidelines, with no attention — not even a furtive glance — paid to their feelings for one another. Meanwhile, Knight’s burgeoning relationship with a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) never generates a moment of drama, and feels shoehorned into the story only so that Ross can swing for the fences with his film’s strangest gambit.
45 minutes into the movie, the action abruptly skips forward 85 years into the future, dropping us into a sweltering Mississippi court room where one of Knight and Rachel’s great-grandsons is standing trial for miscegeny (though only 1/8th black, it was still considered a crime for him to marry a white woman). Ross quickly deflates any hope that “Free State of Jones” will be Hollywood’s biggest bait-and-switch since Pixar’s “Brave,” cutting back to the 19th century and only checking in on the legal proceedings a handful of times after that.
And yet, however clumsy the attempt, this unexpected narrative hail Mary is a rare glimpse of the movie that Ross could have made had he better reconciled his task of making a biopic with his desire for illustrating a history lesson. In a film that features a character turn to the camera and state that “What you sow is what you reap,” in a film that forgets to mention that Rachel was actually owned by Knight’s grandfather before they married, these flash-forwards are the only thing that makes the past feel like more than something that happened to other people.
“Free State of Jones” opens in theaters on Friday, June 24.