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‘Free State of Jones’ is a lost opportunity

The history of Jones County, Mississippi, is fascinating — too bad the film doesn’t live up to it

Concussion is an irritating film. It’s a prime example of some of my most consistent pet peeves about the movie-making industry. After seeing it in November, I was furious — not at the NFL, but at the studio behind the film. And yet Concussion has more in common than you might imagine with Free State of Jones, out Friday.

Concussion should have been a scrappy independent film starring David Oyelowo as Dr. Bennet Omalu. Instead, it was mediocre awards bait with a movie star in the lead whose chops weren’t all that suited to the role. In an effort to make a wide-release commercial success, what should have been a righteous takedown of the NFL’s concussion cover-up was instead a grim, milquetoast, paint-by-numbers affair. The part of Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the love interest of Omalu (Will Smith), was an insult to the actress who played her. Mutiso was reduced to little more than a pretty girl with a few throwaway lines that allowed the film to demonstrate what a genius her husband was. After Mbatha-Raw’s capabilities shone so brightly in Belle and Beyond the Lights, seeing her in a flat supporting role that made so little use of her talents was frustrating. But this is the reality for gifted black film actresses who want to work.

Alas, Free State of Jones suffers from the same affliction as Concussion: rich source material waylaid by outdated, oh-so-typical, risk-averse choices, this time from indie studio STX Entertainment. While Concussion had Jeanne Marie Laskas’ 2009 GQ article Game Brain as its basis, Free State of Jones has the historical text of the same name from Texas State University academic Victoria Bynum. And once again, Mbatha-Raw’s talents are underserved as a damsel waiting to be dazzled by a know-it-all man, this time in the form of quintessential white savior Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey).

Because Free State of Jones concentrates so singularly on making McConaughey the hero of the film, it ends up being a series of missed opportunities.

Surely there’s a psych ward somewhere for women who have spent decades as film critics, where they spend their days mumbling into padded walls about the Bechdel Test and screaming, “Dear lord there are other ways to tell stories and for the love of celluloid why will no one listen?!?”

Free State of Jones, written and directed by Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit, Pleasantville), tells the story of the curious settlement of Jones County, Mississippi. During the Civil War, Jones County began as a swamp outpost for runaway slaves, Confederate soldiers abandoning their posts and poor white farmers fed up with rebel officers behaving like robber barons and making off with more than their legal share of crop harvests and smokehouse inventory, all in the guise of collecting it for the war effort. Meanwhile, it also tells the story of Newt’s descendant, Davis Knight, who in 1948 was tried for miscegenation for marrying a white woman, and how his fate is directly tied to Newt’s actions 85 years earlier.

In 1862, Newt Knight leaves his post as a nurse in the Confederate army because he sees little point in fighting and dying in a war on behalf of rich white slaveholders. It’s only a matter of time before he’s forced to leave his farm and his wife Serena (Keri Russell) and son to avoid being captured and punished. Knight finds refuge in the swamp thanks to a slave on the nearby Akins plantation named Rachel (Mbatha-Raw), who leads him to an encampment of escaped slaves, including a man named Moses (Mahershala Ali). Because he’s run away before, Moses’ head is enclosed in a neck collar with four protruding spikes that prevent him from lying down to sleep. Newt, a former blacksmith, removes the collar, and the men become friendly.

Under Newt’s direction, the encampment grows in population and geographic footprint, stealing arms and supplies from the Confederates, thus creating the free state of Jones County, belonging to neither the Confederates nor the Union. (My screening companion Talia Buford — you may remember her from my piece on Roots — declared that Newt “gentrified the swamp.”) The Jonesians have a geographical advantage: The Confederates can’t make it into the swamp on horseback, and they lack the knowledge to navigate it by foot. The film follows Knight through the Civil War and Reconstruction, and a romance blossoms between him and Rachel. She steals a pocket knife from the Akins plantation for Newt and he teaches her how to read. When Rachel tells Newt that Akins has whipped her because she fought him as he tried to rape her, Newt sets Akins’ hay on fire in retaliation — without pausing for a second to think of the possible negative ramifications of such an act for his beloved Rachel. After the war ends, Rachel, now Newt’s second wife, persuades him to move to Soso, Mississippi. Eventually his impoverished first wife and son — whom he abandoned and didn’t bother looking for after the war — find them. Somehow, they all end up living happily ever after on Newt’s farm in Soso.

Matthew McConaughey stars in Free State of Jones.

Matthew McConaughey stars in Free State of Jones.

Courtesy of STX Entertainment

Because Free State of Jones concentrates so singularly on making McConaughey the hero of the film, it ends up being a series of missed opportunities. We don’t get any indication of how Newt’s black swamp mates feel about his presence, which implies their feelings about the matter are unimportant. We don’t get a much-needed illustration of Rachel’s sexual agency after repeated displays of the trauma she’s experienced. We never see Rachel invite Newt to touch her or to have sex with her, because we don’t see them have sex at all. We don’t see anything that indicates a clear yes from her. We only see her visibly pregnant, carrying Newt’s child.

Free State of Jones’ problem isn’t just that it’s built around McConaughey — because he’s considered a bankable movie star and, according to outdated logic, more likely to ensure a return on the film’s $65 million budget. It’s that his Newt Knight character is one of the most egregious examples of the white savior archetype in modern cinema. This might have been a respectable movie for McConaughey in 2006 — the year Crash won the Oscar for best picture.

These days? It doesn’t even begin to clear the bar.

Thanks to films and television series such as Roots, Selma, 12 Years a Slave and the fourth season of Orange is the New Black, we know what it’s like to see pop culture that addresses race from the perspective of someone other than a white man. More and more, modern audiences are demanding it, which is why you see The Hollywood Reporter continually talking about how Roots was revamped for the age of Black Lives Matter, or how Orange is the New Black was influenced directly by the same movement.

Free State of Jones tries to mitigate this tone deafness by providing a website full of footnotes explaining the historical accuracy of the film. But saying these things actually happened is not the same as considering the different perspectives of people involved in the things that actually happened.

Rachel’s life certainly would have made for a worthwhile entrée to the story of Free State of Jones, especially because Ross doesn’t attempt to reconcile how Rachel and Serena were living together with Newt in Soso, both seemingly happy with the arrangement. Even a Rashômon-inspired approach featuring Newt, Moses, Rachel, Serena and Davis would have been an interesting, unexpected choice, though it would have likely required reappropriating funds that wound up getting spent on expensive battlefield scenes. At least it would have spared the audience images of a Confederate corpse with half its face blown off, or soldiers’ limbs detached from their bodies.

Mahershala Ali and Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones.

Mahershala Ali (L) and Matthew McConaughey in Free State of Jones.

Courtesy of STX Entertainment

It’s a shame Free State of Jones suffers from an oblivious choice of framing. There’s a lovely wide shot of Newt carrying his nephew’s corpse across Mississippi on the back of a mule that feels like an homage to Terrence Malick. There are some charming, mirthful moments, especially in the bog banter between Newt and Moses.

During an exchange when Newt is explaining why he left the Confederate army, he says to Moses and the other runaways, “Don’t own no slaves. Ain’t gon’ get rich selling that cotton.”

Moses shoots back: “Dat’s why we left, too!”

Free State of Jones is not a poorly constructed film, it’s just not a particularly inspired one. Perhaps that’s why STX chose to bury it in the midst of summer blockbuster season as counterprogramming to Independence Day: Resurgence rather than setting it up to compete in the fall alongside other serious films. What we have here is a $65 million self-serious boondoggle — and led by an Oscar winner to boot — that does a disservice to what could have been a truly interesting take on an odd and little-known part of American history. The source material is there. The trick is all in how you treat it.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She's based in Brooklyn.