If you think a thick, juicy slab of Civil War history can’t be boiled down to 145 minutes of speechifying, stultifying cinema, then grab a seat at Free State of Jones. Like the worst civics lesson, this movie bores away at you till your reactions are dulled.
Matthew McConaughey, sucked dry of his usual acting panache, plays Newton Knight, a real-life Mississippi farmer and army nurse who rebelled against the Confederacy with a militia of fellow deserters and renegade slaves. “Everybody is just somebody else’s n***er,” he tells his ragtag troops. A new law declares that that anyone who owns 20 slaves can avoid military service, bolstering Newt’s claim that this is “a poor man’s fighting a rich man’s war.” After Newt’s possessions are seized and his wife Serena (Keri Russell) takes off in terror, Newt runs for the swamps and starts fomenting a revolution that will declare Jones county a state and free its citizens of allegiance to North or South.
It’s a tall order and a potentially exciting one that writer-director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville, the first Hunger Games) dripples away with historical footnotes that break the cardinal rule of drama: show, don’t tell. Even when Newt takes house slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) as his common-law wife and frees another slave, Moses (Mahershala Ali), from his shackles to develop his powers as a leader, Newt remains outsider his own story, another in a long line of Hollywood’s white saviors. What is this dude really thinking? What are the flaws in his character? Where is his secret heart?
Not in this movie. Free State of Jones keeps flashing forward to a future where black lives still don’t matter. After the Civil War ends, freed slaves are still bought and sold but this time under the category of “apprentice.” The Ku Klux Klan is born to enforce inherent racism. In 1940, Newt and Rachel’s great-grandson is jailed for marrying a white woman.
We get the point, but that doesn’t stop Ross from hammering it again and again — and without the passion that would make it come alive onscreen. Free State of Jones needed to blow the dust off history so that it stings for the here and now. What we get is a droning sermon that sacrifices urgent immediacy for moral rectitude. Damn shame.