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Without question, the life of Newton Knight, a Confederate soldier who deserted to the swamps and discovered a worthy cause to fight for, has the makings of a compelling story. However, Free State of Jones exercises a weak grip on the storytelling.
Brilliant moments occur throughout the film (rated R for extreme war violence and racial language). Matthew McConaughey plays Knight with a rangy zeal that makes us understand why so many poor, desperate people would risk their lives to follow him. And the script includes facts mainstream studio historicals tend to leave out: The characters, both black and white, take Scripture seriously as a source of comfort and guidance. An earnest belief in heaven gives them courage to push on amid crushing injustice. The political party of slavery and segregation is actually named—blacks turn out to vote Republican but elections are rigged by Southern Democrats. One scene with three farm girls makes a persuasive argument for the Second Amendment. Pretty subversive stuff for a major Hollywood production.
Other historical details are as troubling as they are fascinating: The owning of 20 slaves, an indication of affluence, exempts sons of wealthy families from military service. After the Union victory, entrenched Confederate powers enact new laws involving “apprenticeships” to keep slave labor under a new name. Free State of Jones shows us the massive, sustained commitment it takes to finally wrench power from oppressors.
The story sometimes lacks momentum. Interludes to a loosely related 1940 court case are awkward, and the plotting and pacing feel fragmented. Even so, there’s much in Jones worth seeing and considering—for those who can stomach the war violence.