Free State of Jones

Review by Adam Woodward @AWLies

Directed by

Gary Ross

Starring

Gugu Mbatha-Raw Mahershala Ali Matthew McConaughey

Anticipation.

‘From the director of The Blind Side…’

Enjoyment.

White Guilt: The Movie.

In Retrospect.

Easy enough to dismiss, but the deeper implications are a genuine cause for concern.

Matthew McConaughey suffers from white saviour complex in this deeply problematic Civil War drama.

Just as the American Civil War was not fought to end slavery (it was fought to defend it), nor was slavery resigned to the history books the moment General Robert E Lee surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Battle of Appomattox Court House. Any historian worth their salt will tell you this, and yet for too long and with very few exceptions, Hollywood has chosen to explore this dark chapter in US history in binary terms. Free State of Jones is pitched as a more nuanced picture of the struggle between white masters and black slaves, but crucially it retains an all-too familiar perspective.

The hero of this story is Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a poor farmer from southern Mississippi who led an interracial rebellion against the Confederacy. It would be churlish to deny the courageousness or conviction of his deeds, but it’s probably fair to say that Knight was a disenfranchised deserter and a canny outlaw rather than a forward-thinking civil rights crusader. That he ended up on the right side of history was as much down to personal circumstance as any virtuous principles he is presumed to have held, and accordingly, it is both disappointing and predictable that he should be the focus of such heavily romanticised hagiography. McConaughey is a fine actor, but the task of persuasively delivering dialogue as callous in sentiment as, “We’re all somebody’s nigger” to a group of predominantly white yeomen proves too great even for him.

Where things really get curious, however, is in the absurdly chaste depiction of Knight’s relationship with a “house negro” named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – the film’s only black female character of any note, in reality once the property of Knight’s grandfather but crudely reimagined here as some sort of Manic Pixie Slave Girl. Knight first meets Rachel when she is sent to aid his sick infant son, and from this moment a simmering sexual tension builds between them.

Later, long after Knight has abandoned his wife, Serena (Keri Russell), and the war is won, he and Rachel start a family of their own. Their intimacy is strongly implied, yet we never actually see them display any physical affection towards one another. It’s almost as if director Gary Ross is trying to make a point of not broaching this particular taboo, yet in doing so he draws attention to it in a far more conspicuous manner than if he’d simply shown them sharing a tender embrace.

Even when the film appears less daunted in its chronicling of this violent period of seismic social change, the results are no less confounding. Knight takes a stand against the contemptuous bureaucrats who conspire to deny the freed men their newly acquired rights to vote. This makes him a pariah, but the sacrifices he makes are trivial when compared to those of other fringe character like Mahershala Ali’s Moses, whose brutal lynching is used as emotional leverage to further lionise Knight.

Tellingly, Free State of Jones does not use this opportunity to examine the legacy of the abolition of slavery from an African-American perspective, but incredibly continues unabashed in its appropriation of black history via intermittent flash forwards to a bizarre court room case involving Knight’s great-great-great grandson. There’s a compelling story in here somewhere, but it’s buried under a mountain of moral grandstanding and white guilt.

Published 30 Sep 2016

Tags: Matthew McConaughey

Anticipation.

‘From the director of The Blind Side…’

Enjoyment.

White Guilt: The Movie.

In Retrospect.

Easy enough to dismiss, but the deeper implications are a genuine cause for concern.

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