Monday, 30 November -0001

Free State of Jones

Gary Ross’s epic tale of a US Civil War deserter and his dream of racial integration

Written by Jason Solomons

Matthew Mcconaughey’s character in the epic new film Free State of Jones is Newton Knight. Not being schooled in minor figures from the disputed fringes of the American Civil War, I’ll admit now to never having heard of him. this film certainly puts that right.

While Knight is based on a real person, how much else in the film is true I couldn’t tell you, and I don’t think it matters. What we really want in movies like this is that it ‘feels’ true, and you can’t fault Gary ross’s production for that.

Mcconaughey’s Knight is, at the start, a battlefield medic who flees the confederate army when the senseless brutality – and death of his nephew – gets too much. Desertion pays a high price and on returning home to Jones county, Mississippi, he is chased by a slave-hunting dog and forced into hiding, holing up in a swamp where a band of escaped Negro slaves have gathered, led by Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali). Film-Jul17-JasonSolomons-176

I do like a swamp in a movie, all that Spanish moss and atmosphere, and it is here that Knight and his new friends form the ideas and bonds that eventually lead to a growing community, an uprising and the founding of a mixed race enclave, the titular Free State.

All this happens while Abraham Lincoln abolishes slavery, so all should have been rejoicing. but it’s actually what happens afterwards, as the film continues, that really intrigues, when life arguably gets worse for the freed black inhabitants. We witness the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, burnings, segregation and the return of the plantation owners.

Meanwhile, Knight has fallen in love with a beautiful black woman, rachel, played by the wonderful Gugu Mbatha-raw, even though he’s still married, his wife Serena played by Keri russell. Mcconaughey plays it all rather well, a charismatic rebel leader, a robin Hood of the swamps and a troubled Lothario with weighty moral matters on his mind. No wonder he can’t quite grow a full beard – all that worry.

As if there weren’t enough going on, director ross adds another layer, set 80 or so years in the future, where a bewildered young man is enduring one of those typically fruity Southern court trials under the charge of being descended from Knight and rachel and therefore guilty of intermarriage when he marries a white woman.

this segment alone would have made a great movie and, indeed, you do wonder why, in this age of Netflix and all that, if the whole thing mightn’t have been better as a 10-part tV series when its details and historical sweep would have more room to deepen and breathe.

I rarely wish a film were longer, but Free State of Jones feels a bit crammed, so the ticking of period cliché and history boxes takes the place of character and searing drama. Still, it’s handsome, fascinating and nobly performed by all – watch out, in particular, for Mahershala Ali, who was so good as the fixer remy in House of cards and who shines in the new film Moonlight, which I just caught at the London Film Festival and about which, I promise, you’ll be hearing much more soon.

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