Just been watching…(40)

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.

50 thoughts on “Just been watching…(40)

  1. Pete – you started by saying you don’t normally care for Matthew McConaughey, and neither do I. And that ran true to form for this movie. Props to the props department, for obviously taking real pains to make it historically accurate, and the movie definitely some terrific drama, and is worth seeing. I loved seeing something challenging the endless romanticism of the Confederacy. But it’s always painful to watch McConaughey, so watching him seemed to take a year or two longer than the war. Sorry to be so negative, but I kept hoping a stray Minié ball would get him. Cheers to you though, this was an excellent article, RPT

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Robert. My take on him is that he usually spoils an otherwise good film. His ‘down-home’ slur, and laconic drawl normally has me reaching for the ‘off’ button within minutes. On this occasion, I thought he suited the role, and looked suitably dirty and unkempt, with just the right amount of fervour and mania necessary for the part.
      I still think someone else could have done it better though.

      I am one of those who generally likes the ‘romance’ of the Confederacy; maybe because I’m English, or just prefer grey uniforms, and the underdog. Given that, I agree that it was good to see some reinforced negatives about life down south during the war, and the historical aspects of that reminded me of ‘Ride With The Devil’, and the raid on Lawrence, or ‘Cold Mountain’.
      I wrote this, on another site.

      Thanks as always for your considered comment.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Pete, this sank without a trace here in the US last summer – I think we are suffering a bit of “history fatigue” about our past – “12 Years A Slave” is hard to top…interestingly, most of “Wonder Woman” is set in WW1 – NOT a war that has been at the forefront of cinema lately!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think this film is far superior to the predictable and formulaic ’12 Years a Slave’, John.
      Setting ‘Wonder Woman’ in WW1 is a strange thing to do, but I doubt I will ever see it.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A nice write up of an interesting movie Pete. I’ve often surprised myself by how much I enjoy certain ‘war’ movies. The emotions can hit you like a wave. I never liked McConaughey in those romantic comedy movies I would avoid so often, but he did reprise a great role in Dallas Buyers Club ( in my opinion). The trailer is quite captivating too. I like how Matthew states ” Last time I checked, the gun don’t care who’s pulling the trigger”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is more a film set during a war than a war film, MV. It deals with the issues of Confederate poverty and hardship, slavery, and rebellion against the rebels. I am normally put off by his laconic style, but McConaughey doesn’t do that in this film, and plays it straight.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Why thank you Pete. It means a lot to hear you like reading them. I haven’t been on WordPress for a few days due to poor health and it exhausts me at the worst of times but I have been working on one which will hopefully be posted tomorrow.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Pete, the trailer and your review almost seem like they’re about two different movies. But the trailer looks good, and your review makes it sound interesting. So I guess, either way you cut it, it must be a good film. I haven’t seen that many Civil War films, or films set during that era. “Gettysburg” is one I’ve seen, though.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Most civil war films are about actual battles. ‘Glory’ was about the assault on Fort Wagner in the main, with the lead up to that. ‘God and Generals’ is mainly about Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania, with the fighting in The Wilderness, and Chancellorsville, where Jackson was shot by his own troops, in a mistaken identity situation. ‘Gettysburg’ is self explanatory. ‘The Horse Soldiers’ is about Brandy Station, and the lead up to that battle. The battle that starts this film is Corinth, in 1862, but it lasts for only a few minutes, and concentrates on the aftermath. The trailer is trying to paint a picture of an exciting civil war film, but this one is not so much about the fighting, as the holding of the declared ‘Free State’. That said, I would watch it again, as it is very authentic. I would compare it to ‘Cold Mountain’ in terms of action against other parts of the story.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The word, “Nigger” was not racist for many years in this country and was used in common conversation among the ordinary everyday citizens … spoken from the pulpits of all the churches …. printed in newspapers …. printed on billboards, flyers and circulars …. appeared on packaging for goods sold in retail stores …..It was a common, everyday word and nobody thought twice about using it until some ignoramuses decided to make it politically incorrect for whatever the reason and ever since that time it has been a “Bad” word. I believe the many and often attempts by agenda-driven people and groups to change the meaning of the words in our Language is nothing more than a form of attempted thought control and the problem is that these changes are sold in such a slick manner that the clueless hordes of ordinary citizens begin accepting the propaganda and the agendists get their way … one more step toward total dominion of the masses by a new class of masters who desire to Lord it over us all.

    The movie sounds worth watching and I shall do exactly that at the first opportunity.

    Thank you for reviewing it for us.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Excellent review, Pete. I love war movies. Hollywood does take some liberties, perhaps over emphasizing events, yet we need just that in order to see that injustice is wrong. Unfortunately prejudice is still here today. Sigh!

    Liked by 1 person

        1. It starts with a (short) battle, then there are some skirmishes later, followed by the capture of the town. It isn’t misleading, but is trying to paint the film more as a Civil War film, rather than one about slavery and poverty.
          Best wishes, Pete.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Pete, you’ll let me know, won’t you, if any of these films you’re watching now for the first time (and posted since your A-Z choices) should be added to the alphabetical list? I’m happy to revise and update as you find more titles to add. I’m just about ready to post the A-Ls.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would not have picked this as my choice for ‘F’, Susan. It is something of a niche interest, and as I have tried to watch every film ever made about the US Civil War, it was naturally going to be one for me.
      Best wishes, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. BTW that law was only repealed in the 1970’s…..from what I hear the movie is fairly accurate but there is film license in there……it is about the only good thing Mississippi can point to in its history that is fair and somewhat balanced…I know I live there….good review…..chuq

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It really has not changed much…Hell they were still lynching blacks in 1960’s and forced them to live separate lives from whites until the mid 70’s…there is still much hatred in the state although they are making some strides forward….chuq

        Liked by 1 person

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