Free State of Jones Movie Review

Sometimes it’s difficult to accurately express criticism of a historic film without sounding insensitive to the people or time.  FREE STATE OF JONES is an interesting film following a time of great importance during the American Civil War but inadequately conveys the true horror and power of the events that transpired.

Spanning from 1862 to 1876, FREE STATE OF JONES follows Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a defiant southern farmer who deserts the Confederate army, refusing to fight in a war that he does not believe in. After uniting with a group of runaway slaves, Knight bans together other poor farming families, organizing a mixed race rebel uprising that led Jones County, Mississippi to secede from the Confederacy.

Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones

FREE STATE OF JONES is based on a fascinating true story from American history. The degree of accuracy of information that lies within is not my expertise.  There is no denying that the film shows the hate and cruelty that people had toward others because of the color of their skin.  FREE STATE OF JONES usually avoids the action but doesn’t shy away from the aftermath of beatings, rapes, and murder by hangings done to the innocent.

Director Gary Ross has a short but impressive resume with PLEASANTVILLE, SEABISCUIT, AND THE HUNGER GAMES.  For FREE STATE OF JONES, Ross appears to rely too heavily on the historical topic and the actors to convey emotion without giving the film any dynamic tension or struggle from behind the camera.  FREE STATE OF JONES feels more like a biographical reenactment rather than an emotionally charged period piece.  The film occasionally jumps nearly 85 years in the future, where a descendant of Newton Knight is on trial for illegally marrying a white woman because he might be a descendant from a black woman. The sentiment paralleling the earlier events is a nice idea but again isn’t properly executed in an organic, meaningful way.

Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw star in FREE STATE OF JONES

While FREE STATE OF JONES might follow a fascinating character in American history,  I couldn’t help but be constantly reminded that I was watching a Hollywood movie starring Matthew McConaughey. Whether it be the directing, screenplay or actors, the characters seemed insincere and lacked the human spirit and emotional attachment necessary for such serious events.  We’ve seen similar films tell the story much better.  Recent Best Picture Winner, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is an immersive, captivating, and heart-wrenching film that properly displays the historical and emotional impact of its true story.  Even a movie like Mel Gibson’s THE PATRIOT, which sacrifices historical accuracy for blockbuster entertainment has more zip and energy.  FREE STATE OF JONES misses the mark on both accounts.

Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones

I’m thankful to have seen FREE STATE OF JONES for if nothing else to be slightly educated on this portion of our history and important change as a country. While the film mostly kept me further than arms length, one line of dialogue managed to hit me particularly hard.  The power of of the words and Mahershala Ali’s (who plays a runaway slave named Moses) conviction-filled delivery brought me to sudden tears in a way I was not expecting.  As much as I appreciate that singular moment, that is only one moment in a nearly two and half hour film that lacks meaningful resonance.

Out of respect toward those men, women and children who needlessly lost their lives due to the hatred from others, I’m glad some of their story can be told.  But FREE STATE OF JONES does not properly convey that story and lacks the significant emotional and immersive impact that it deserves.

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