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'Free State of Jones' and Its Reimagined Popular History

However noble Gary Ross' revisionist history might be, Free State of Jones leaves unresolved -- and worse, unasked -- a series of vital questions.


Free State of Jones

Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin
Rated: R
Studio: STX Entertainment
Year: 2016
US date: 2016-06-24 (Limited release)
UK date: 2016-09-09 (General release)
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"Today, people read less and watch more, and whether we like it or not, academic history is often overwhelmed by popular history. Les Mis actually becomes the French Revolution, Homeland is somehow the “real” war on terror, and Lincoln is inevitably remembered as he was in Lincoln."

-- Gary Ross

"Walk where I walk," instructs Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Making her way across a wide swamp, she steps carefully as she leads her visitor, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey). "Out there's deep," Rachel explains, "Through here is shallow." He does just as she asks.

This moment comes early in Free State of Jones, set in 1862, during the Civil War in Mississippi. Until now, Knight has appeared to be a robust and independent-minded farmer, as when he makes the difficult decision to desert the rebel army when he came to see its cause (poor men "fighting for cotton"; that is, for rich men) as very different from his own (protecting his neighbors' land and dignity against an invading force). When that desertion makes him an enemy of the South, Knight is further alienated when a crew of "slave catchers" comes after him, chasing him down with guns and a pack of fierce "nigger dogs".

With his leg ripped open by one of the dogs, Knight finds help in the form of Rachel, a house slave at a nearby plantation who's working with a small group of runaway slaves hiding out in the swamp. Set in a wide shot that emphasizes his smallness, Knight limps after Rachel into that swamp, a place where white people tend not to go, because its vast expanse brooks no wagons or horses. Here his attitude is altered, as he is able to walk where she walks; that is, to appreciate someone else's exceptional oppression, sacrifice, and generosity, to see himself who might be chased by "nigger dogs", he becomes less of a go-it-alone action hero and more of a people's leader.

This is the moral arc offered by Free State of Jones, named for the bit of swampy land in Jones County where the real life Newton Knight, in 1863, staked out a community independent of the Confederacy. It was populated by the "Knight Company", comprised of escaped slaves and other poor white farmers beset by the government's demands (including the onerous "tax-in-kind" system in support of the Confederate military).

While the movie uses much of Newton Knight's life, it also diverges and fabricates characters or plotlines. (It also provides an information site showing many of these differences.) What makes these filmmaking choices striking is their effort to celebrate Knight in a conventional way, when his resistance to conventions is precisely what makes his adventure unusual, not conventional. It's understandable the filmmaker would invent a conveniently reappearing adversary like the scurrilous Lieutenant Barbour (Brad Carter) or a courageous comrade like Moses (Mahershala Ali), a courageous runaway slave who wants nothing more than to reunite with his wife and child, who were sold to a white man in Texas. It's helpful, too, when Moses can voice a recurring theme like "You cannot own a child of God", so that Knight can cite him and agree rather than deliver that lesson to his fellows.

It's also commendable that Free State of Jones doesn't repress Knight's convoluted family life, noting that he not only had children with Rachel (nine children in real life, one on screen), but also reunited, after the war, with his own white wife, Serena (Keri Russell), with whom he has a son (in real life, also nine children). But it's hard also not to notice the missed opportunity here, to explore the many facets of this multi-racial family through a prism not limited to that of the conventional white patriarch. (Imagine, for instance, a movie with Rachel or Serena at its center.)

The movie nods toward Knight's complicated legacy in an awkwardly inserted subplot concerning a great grandson by way of Rachel, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), accused of having Negro blood in 1948, and thus illegally married to a white woman. His lineage is tracked through Knight's Bible, into which he writes the name of his newborn son, a scene warmly lit to suggest their familial joy, following the birth of a baby Rachel describes as "a brand-new thing", neither black nor white.

This courtroom drama, set in Ellisville, Mississippi, is intercut into Newton Knight's repeated skirmishes with the Confederate soldiers, indicating not only Newton's proto-integrationist leanings, but also the American South's lingering backwardness. It's a point made effectively, if more metaphorically, during an effort during Reconstruction by the Union League, legally freed slaves, menaced by the Klan and not allotted their "40 Acres and a Mule", but still endeavoring to exercise their right to vote. As this group -- led by Knight -- approaches the polling station, the camera shows close shots of sinister white men with guns; inside, the white officials declare they have no more Republican ballots, only Democrat.

When Knight and his fellows say they'll just wait for more Republican ballots to arrive, the men -- all armed -- stand on opposite sides of a table that holds two large jars, white Democrat ballots in one, nothing in the other. The officials give in, and so the movie offers up a swelling music soundtrack and tight shots of the Republican jar filling up with pink ballots.

You're not surprised to learn by a subsequent title card that the ballots will be miscounted and the election won by the white Democrat. What might give pause, however, is that image of the pink Republican ballots fluttering into the jar, a sign of individual moral triumph in the face of institutional corruption and deceit. Given current voter suppression efforts in the US, this moment is at once hopeful and devastating.

Whatever principles Newton Knight once pursued, and however noble Gary Ross' revisionist history might be, Free State of Jones leaves unresolved -- and worse, unasked -- a series of vital questions. So, even as you contemplate how the movie represents who's oppressed and how, who might stand up and how -- and who -- might embody any given American past, you're left with a reimagined "popular history" that's less than persuasive.

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