In “Free State of Jones” Matthew McConaughey Takes No Prisoners
Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades
Jones County’s most interesting native son was Newton Knight, a farmer and Southern Unionist. That’s the term for white people living in the Confederate States of America who opposed secession from the Union. During the Civil War, Newton was the leader of the Knight Company, a band of Confederate army deserters who fought against the South.
Historians disagree as to whether Newton Knight was a noble man of principle or an unprincipled outlaw. But that does not seem to be a question in “Free State of Jones,” the new Matthew McConaughey movie that’s playing at the Tropic Cinema.
Knight’s grandfather was one of Jones County’s largest slaveholders. But Newton’s father was the only heir not to inherit any slaves, so there were none to be passed along. Thereby, Newton had nothing to lose when it came to freeing slaves -- although some claim it was his devout Baptist morality that sparked his opposition to slavery.
Having no slaves, he did not fall under the Twenty Negro Law, which would have exempted him from serving in the Confederate Army. In late 1862 he deserted, stating, “If they had a right to conscript me when I didn’t want to fight the Union, I had a right to quit when I got ready.”
Proclaiming themselves “Southern Yankees,” about 600 deserters formed the Knight Company with Newton elected as captain. The Knight Company fought some 14 skirmishes against Confederate forces. In July 1864, the Natchez Courier reported that Jones County had seceded from the Confederacy, proclaiming itself to be the Free State of Jones.
Director-writer Gary Ross (“The Hunger Games,” “Seabiscuit”) stuck as close to the historical record as he could, cramming the story into an overly long 2 ½ hours. He consulted with a number of respected historians (Eric Foner of Columbia University, Martha Hodes of NYU, among them) in his attempt to accurately portray the times.
As Newton Knight, Matthew McConaughey (Oscar-winner for “Dallas Buyers Club”) looks like he stepped out of a daguerreotype, the image of a war-weary Civil War soldier with scraggly beard, greasy hair, and fierce blue eyes. Keri Russell (TV’s “The Americans”) adds a sense of sadness to her small role as Knight’s first wife, Serena. Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle”) brings luminous dignity to her key performance as Knight’s subsequent black wife, Rachel. And Mahershala Ali stands out as Moses, a composite character who exemplifies the slaves fighting alongside Newton and his deserters.
In this moralistic telling, Confederate soldiers and rich plantation owners are all bad, with Newton Knight being a Civil War-era Robin Hood. That’s pretty much the way Knight’s son portrayed him in a 1935 book titled “The Life and Activities of Captain Newton Knight.” The book omits Rachel, given the ongoing bias against interracial sexuality.
However, Knight’s grandniece painted him as “a backward, ignorant, murderous traitor” in her 1951 book “The Echo of the Black Horn.”
Saint or sinner? We’ll leave that to the historians. But as a filmmaker, Gary Ross clearly comes down on the side of selfless sainthood.
As for Matthew McConaughey, it’s another well-thought-out performance in a string of movie roles that began with “The Lincoln Lawyer” and continued with “Dallas Buyers Club.” Here he’s convincing as a rebel who rebelled against the Southern Rebellion. Ironically, one of McConaughey’s ancestors was Confederate Brigadier General Dandridge McRae, a soldier who fought to preserve slavery in the South.
You will appreciate the bloody battle scenes and the documentary-like style that adds historical verisimilitude, but it’s the underpinnings of the movie -- the portrayal of the South as an avaricious cotton-based economy -- that makes Ross’s point. When it comes to that magnolia-scented mythology about the Southern way of life threatened by Northern aggression, “Free State of Jones” takes no prisoners.