Film Review by Kam Williams
Civil War Saga Chronicles Exploits of Confederate Soldier-Turned-Slave Revolt Leader
While the slave raids led by Nat Turner and John Brown have been well documented in the annals of American history, the relatively-successful exploits of another notorious abolitionist insurrectionist have somehow slipped through the cracks. At least until now.
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) was born and raised in Jones County, Mississippi, the grandson of a slave owner, making him, at first blush, a very unlikely figure to mount a revolt. He even served as a medic in the Confederate army during the Civil War, but was disheartened to learn how the sons of large plantation owners had been exempted from the military draft. And he was further demoralized the day a fresh young recruit (Jacob Lofland) from his hometown who had just joined his unit perished in battle upon reaching the front lines.
No longer seeing any sense in poor people fighting to preserve the privileges of the very rich, Newt impulsively went AWOL, the dead boy's body in tow. He returned to Jones where he is quickly identified as a deserter. After being abandoned by his wife (Keri Russell) and having his farm confiscated by the Confederacy, he flees for his life, finding sanctuary in a swamp deep in the woods inhabited by a handful of escaped slaves.
There, he befriends Moses (Mahershala Ali), a runaway bothered by an iron collar that had been soldered around his neck by a sadistic slave master. Newt, a blacksmith by trade, gains the group's trust by freeing the beleaguered black man from the torturous contraption.
He soon emerges as its very charismatic, spiritual leader, founding the Free State of Jones on a quartet of core principles promoting racial equality. Gradually, its ranks swell to over 250, with both ex-slaves and disaffected Rebels joining.
In this oasis of racial harmony, Newt proceeds to fall in love with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a beautiful black woman who bears him a son. Thus unfolds Free State of Jones, a reverential biopic written and directed by four-time Oscar-nominee Gary Ross.
Matthew McConaughey shines from beginning to end in a star vehicle where the virtuous protagonist is never allowed to exhibit a flaw. This costume drama proves compelling enough, primarily because nobody knew such a scenario could possibly have unfolded in a Southern state like Mississippi supposedly marked by segregation and intolerance.
An overdue history lesson about an important chapter in America's long march to freedom.
Very Good (3 stars)
Rated R for brutal battle scenes, an ethnic slur and disturbing images
Running time: 139 minutes
Distributor: STX Entertainment
To see a trailer for Free State of Jones, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y_38WdArR20