There are two very interesting stories being told within The Free State of Jones. The bulk of the film tells the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a field medic for the Confederate Army during the height of the Civil War. As the war raged on, Knight deserted his company and defended his and his neighbours’ property from pillaging Confederate cavalry. The penalty for desertion (and most crimes under the CSA) is death; so Newt ran. With the help of friends, Newt joined a band of runaway slaves, hiding from trackers in the swamps. The group grew larger as more deserters and runaways sought refuge from the all consuming war. 5 became 10 and 10 became 100 and soon the ‘colony’ sought more permanent dwellings. Eventually, after overtaking the small town of Ellisville, ‘The Knight Company’ sought to secede Jones County from Mississippi and become The Free State Of Jones.
However, as I’ve stated; there are two storied being told in this film. In late 1948 Newt’s Great Grandson Davis also fought for his freedom. Given the common knowledge of Newt Knight’s second marriage to a former slave, Davis was dragged into court to prove his ethnicity. It’s a rare occurrence where a child’s paternity wasn’t a of the father’s, but of the mother’s identity. If proven to be technically black, Davis could face serious jail time for marrying his wife, Junie Lee Spradley, a local white woman.
After starting off with a bang, well several bangs, The Free State of Jones drags on a bit for the rest of the film. While the focus is (and rightfully so) on Newt and his rise to infamy, the sudden cuts to a time described only as ’85 years later’ were frustratingly satisfying. Just after establishing Newt and his motives, we learn of a seemingly unrelated case where a seemingly white man is facing prison time for marrying a white woman. Before I can ask “whats all this then” we rejoin Newt and friends already in progress. To me it felt like the wrong story was told. Or, if the tale of Newton Knight and the Knight Company were to be told, let’s keep it in the 1860’s.
Others seemed to gripe that the Free State of Jones became lazy in leaning on its christian values. A few of the great philosophical queries from the film were answered with “Because God…”, making it seem as if you were being judged as you’re munching on your taquitos. It may not be the Kirk Cameron approved brand of Christian entertainment, because The Free State of Jones does push a few buttons that drew audible gasps from the audience; especially as we move into ‘Reconstruction’ era America.
Knowing the history helps, and in my limited research of this review, The Free State of Jones isn’t completely biased, nor is it deadly accurate. Purposely leaving out the “Icky” parts of Knight’s time (Read: all the incest), the film portrays Knight as a benevolent separatist. History mostly agrees. The Knight name in Southeastern Mississippi is a topic of conversation today, as debate of whether Newton Knight was a treasonous rat or Robin Hood like folk hero.
Rated: R @ 139 mins.