The Free State of Jones

Directed by Gary Ross 

Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali

Rated R

View the trailer here.

In 1860 and 1861, when the Southern states seceded, they did so only after putting the matter to a vote.  It was common political knowledge that states had a constitutional right to secede.  In the first few decades of American independence, Massachusetts threatened to secede several times, including once during the War of 1812.  It was a non-controversial concept until eleven Southern states put it into practice, and then the shooting started.

Like all political controversies, even those of a regional nature, secession wasn’t universally supported in the South.  (Neither was slavery, by the way.)  The matter was put to the vote on a county-by-county basis, and many Southern counties voted against secession.  One of these was Grayson County, Texas—which in 1896 became the site of the state’s first Confederate monument.  Jones County, Mississippi, voted no to secession, and they by-God meant no.

The Free State of Jones, in taking an unsentimental look at a terrible period of American history, illustrates the points made in Emory Thomas’s book, The Confederacy as a Revolutionary Experience: that the Confederacy, in fighting for its survival, had to become much like what it was fighting against.  An agrarian society had to industrialize in preparation for modern warfare; a collection of states that had seceded over the issue of states’ rights had to band together as a centralized nation; a farm-based capitalist economy had to collectivize its resources.  (Not addressed by the movie: a slave-holding society had to consider General Patrick Cleburne’s suggestion that 500,000 slaves be freed, armed, and sent into battle.  The Confed-erate Congress, which was adept at doing everything it could to lose the war, rejected the idea.)

On the ground, and in this movie, what this all meant is that the Confederate army, in rounding up deserters and appropriating (i.e., confiscating) from the people what it needed to carry on the war (and then some), often became just another occupying enemy force.  Southerners are ornery by nature, and we don’t like anybody telling us what to do or taking away our stuff.  Exhibit A: Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a principled and very hardheaded deserter, who hides out in the swamp among runaway slaves with whom he finds common cause.  Their numbers grow, and as they’re joined by disgruntled and put-upon local farmers, the revolution within a revolution takes off.  It’s to the director’s credit (who also co-scripted) that Knight isn’t depicted as Errol Flynn’s jolly Robin Hood.  This isn’t an adventure, and this guy means business.

The Free State of Jones reminds us that the Civil War was a complicated period of history, with heroes and villains on all sides.  (Another almost-recent movie that served the same purpose while covering different ground was 1999’s Ride with the Devil, which deals with the Kansas Jayhawkers vs. the Missouri Bushwhackers, and features a harrowing depiction of Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence, Kansas.)  The story continues into the postwar years of emancipation, Reconstruction, and the early days of the black vote—and of the KKK.  There are intervals that look ahead to the 1940s, to the “miscegenation” trial of one of Knight’s descendants—a reminder that, as Faulkner once wrote of Mississippi, “The past isn’t dead.  It isn’t even past.” 

I hear tell The Free State of Jones is getting mostly hostile reviews.  I don’t know, because I don’t read other reviewers’ comments on any given flick until I’ve written my own.  But if it’s true, I have to wonder what their objections might be.  Maybe it’s because the movie looks modest for its reported $50 million budget, with battles that are mere skirmishes, intimate in scope, instead of huge, sweeping CGI panoramas.  Maybe it’s because the episodic story uses the occasional onscreen title to explain what’s going on, arguably a structural crudity.  Maybe it’s because Free State, at more than two hours long, requires an adult attention span.  Maybe it's because (horrors!) there are scenes in which children handle guns.  Maybe, though, it’s because the movie is non-PC enough to suggest that the war wasn’t All About Slavery (a view so simplistic it’s been ridiculed by The Simpsons)—or that it shows the first black voters, at their first opportunity, voting for Republicans.

Recommended.

Lyndon Joslin