Based on a true story. I don’t know about you but when I hear this line during a Hollywood trailer, I cringe inwardly. Did they say this about Cecil B Demille’s epic Ten Commandments, I wonder? These days some might dispute it?!
Anyway, anything Hollywood proudly announces is based on a true story is almost bound to tug away at the heart strings. In a one man (or woman) triumph over adversity sort of way.
Cut to America in the mid 19th century divided by the Civil War. Cue Newton Knight (Matthew McCaughey) as a poor farmer from Mississippi who becomes the figurehead for an uprising which results in Jones County seceding from the Confederacy – hence the film’s title. The film follows Knight’s disillusionment with the war and the Southern states’ pro slavery stance which exempts the sons of rich slave owners from being conscripted. Soon he’s leading a band of deserters and slaves into the swamps where they carry out guerrilla raids on the Confederate supplies all the while being hunted as rebels from a rebel army.
Post war reconstruction leaves things little changed. The blacks have the vote but that doesn’t count for much – in fact in some places it’s not counted at all. A system of apprenticeship replaces slavery and the true state for former slaves doesn’t change a lot, either.
In fact, for many it gets worse as the Klan rides into town burning more than just crosses as the Northern army considers it job done and disbands leaving blacks defenceless. Nothing appears to have changed very much. Knight’s black friends try to stand up for their rights but lynching’s are rife.
As a counter plot, there are courtroom scenes throughout the film, from 1948 where a descendant of Knight’s is being tried for a mixed marriage. He’s deemed to be one eighth black and has married a white woman. It’s a startling reminder of the segregation laws practised in many southern states until the 1950 and 1960s.
Knight had many children from both his white wife and the black former slave he first befriends and then falls in love with (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). After the war, it appears that they all lived together on the same farm. He bequeathed land to his black common law wife, making her one of the first blacks to own property.
So much for the extended history story and subject matter. What about the film itself? At 140 minutes long, sadly, it doesn’t so much as run along as crawl on its belly, at times. Perhaps the focus could have been narrower and more intense without losing any of its laudable meaning. Under those hot southern skies, it meanders through Knight’s journey to the self-realisation that he’s in the wrong place, fighting the wrong war.
For director/writer Gary Ross, the film was clearly a labour of love. However, like so many labours of love, Free State of Jones did feel somewhat laboured in parts.
After the initial gore and guts of the battle scenes has worn off, McCaughey is convincing enough as the hollowed cheeked bearded farmer turned post civil war, civil rights crusader. I think the film would have benefitted from a strong counter figure to Knight’s righteous cause. Say, opposition from a close member of his family, or a revered older relative, might have injected some inner turmoil or tension into Knight’s state of mind.
Perhaps the most telling scene, paradoxically, takes place in the 1948 courtroom scenes. One of the lawyers makes the point that in paternity cases, it’s usually about trying to prove who the father is. In this case, it’s about who is the mother – or great grandmother (and whether she was black or white). As if this should really matter.
The film did prompt me to do some research on Newton Knight. He lived with his black wife until she passed away and he himself died aged 84 in 1922. He gave a long, single interview the year before which accounts for much of the known direct information about him.
It seems that for many in the South today, he’s a deserter and adulterer. It also seems that not all of his descendants whatever their background are exactly best buddies. I don’t think Knight would be too concerned or surprised given what he went through. Like the film itself, things move slowly in some parts.