Free State Of Jones (2016)
***As it is historical, there are some event spoilers***
As a real fan of films set during the U.S. Civil War, I was keen to see this film, which is based on real events. I am not normally a fan of Matthew McConaughey, who plays the lead, but if it is about the civil war, I can put up with that. It is worth mentioning that it is only ‘based’ on real events, and does not claim to show them all in order, or with complete accuracy.
The fist thing to note about this film is that it is not a conventional war film. Although it begins showing some action, and a battle, it is about a lot more than another attempt to show the war from one side or the other, or both at the same time, as in ‘Gettysburg’ for example.
After losing a young relative killed on his first day in action, Newton Knight is at the end of his tether. Already disillusioned by the feeling that Confederate soldiers like him are just fighting for the rich slave owners, he and some of his fellow soldiers are sickened to hear about a new law. This law states that men from families who ‘own twenty negroes’ are not compelled to do military service. He decides to desert, and to return the body of his young relative to their home county of Jones, Mississippi. Once there, he is further shocked to discover that the Confederate government is now taxing the poor ordinary people, taking their crops and livestock as well as household goods, to feed and clothe the army.
Knight soon organises the local people against the soldiers collecting these taxes. He has to go on the run, or be faced with arrest for desertion. He is helped to hide in the local impenetrable swamps, where he falls in with a group of runaway slaves. This ragtag group is later joined by more deserters from the Confederate Army, as the war begins to go badly for the Confederacy. Once organised, Newton leads his small army against the local troops and tax collectors, restoring the seized food to the farmers who had grown it. This soon breaks out into open warfare, and Knight’s company manages to capture the local large town, and hold it against larger numbers of troops sent from Alabama.
There are tensions within his group though, as the newly-arrived deserters resent his fair treatment of the freed slaves, and his open association with a mixed race woman. In an attempt to equip his men properly, Knight sends a delegation to the Union General, Sherman, asking for arms and reinforcements, with promises to hold the area for the Union against the Confederate troops. But Sherman isn’t really interested, and just sends some old rifles. At this point, realising that they have no friends on either side, the group declare themselves to be their own country, the ‘Free State of Jones.’
So, is it any good? If you are a fan of civil war films, or historical dramas, as I am, then I have no doubt you will like it. It not only covers a period from 1862 to 1876, there is also a small but interesting second story running through the narrative. Much later, one of Newton’s distant relatives is seen in a Mississippi court, being tried for the offence of being a ‘person of colour’ who has married a white woman. He is only one eighth related to Newton’s mixed race girlfriend, but considered by Mississippi at the time to be a black man. And this is in 1948.
Most of the film concentrates on slavery, and the plight of the poor white people during and after the Civil War. Even after emancipation, the former slaves are often forced to return to harsh conditions in the fields, under a Mississippi law which changed their status to ‘apprentices’, tied to their employer. When the local black men are organised to vote in the election, they are intimidated so badly, that Knight is only able to get twenty-three people to venture into town to vote. Even after they bravely stand up to the local authorities to cast their votes, the result is rigged to show that they didn’t actually vote. The activities of the Ku Klux Klan are covered too, with the burning of farms, and lynchings. The overall message is that Union victory in the war changed little or nothing for the poor people of any colour in the South.
As a film, it is well made, and often very good to look at. McConaughey is perfect in the role of Knight, and acts with conviction and some skill. The other characters are all roundly portrayed, and nobody is there just to fill the screen. It doesn’t shy away from the difficult issues, and there is much use of the word ‘Nigger’, as well as abuse and poor treatment of black people. It looks and feels historically accurate too, and cannot be faulted for genuine atmosphere. At times it feels somewhat ‘preaching’ in tone, but it is about something that actually happened, and you have to keep that in mind. It didn’t do well at the box office, and received mixed reviews. However, if you liked ’12 Years A Slave’, (I didn’t) ‘Glory’, or ‘Mississippi Burning’, then I am sure you will enjoy this too.