Film Review: Free State of Jones

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Black Lives Matter

Gary Ross’s film, invested with the authority and fact checking zeal of not one, but seven academic consultants, is a cinematic history lesson that privileges detail and context over histrionics, melodrama, or any other potentially ruinous capitulation to audience taste that threatens a film’s authentic credentials.

Built on a typically stoic and measured performance from Matthew McConaughey, a man who does seething righteous anger better than most, Jones offers a look at the legacy of slavery in the Deep South. It’s a story of great scope that encompasses civil war, the false dawn of emancipation, Klan persecution, and the toxic legacy of segregation, with McConaughey’s descendent forced to continue the good fight 85 years on, when the legacy of mixed marriage collides with Mississippi’s still stringent race laws.

Much like the recent 12 Years a Slave, Free State of Jones’s greatest achievement, besides its sobriety and straight forward detailing of events, is to crystallise how America’s present day problems with race came to be. The bubble that McConaughey’s Newton Knight creates, a reaction to the senseless slaughter in defence of wealthy slave-owning landowners on the battlefield, attempts to be blind to colour, indifferent to wealth, and constituted as progressive; Gugu Mbatha-Raw gets the education in literacy in the swamp denied to her on the plantation; but it can’t remain isolated from the Confederate culture for long.

Ross documents the struggle with local soldiers, the punishment of so-called seditionists, the fear of the ruling class. But whereas some Hollywood productions would have ended with the war’s end, and the emancipation of slaves, Ross pushes on to show how the Free State’s ideals were put down by the sheer weight of ingrained economic self-interest.

In many respects the post-war portion of Ross’s carefully paced film is the most harrowing, because it shows the slow erosion of hope. Slavery is rebranded as apprenticeship, former confederate soldiers adjudicate on local laws designed to get around new federal strictures, the federal government withdraws its forces and the lynchings begin, coupled with thugs determined to deny frightened African Americans their new right to vote. It’s heartbreaking and infuriating, not least because black Americans are still being discriminately murdered, denied opportunity, denied prosperity.

McConaughey’s the perfect leading man for a story like this – it’s effectively a more realist, less sensationist prequel to A Time to Kill, and he gives it the gravitas and dignity it deserves. It’s a remarkable tale that does what all great history manages, namely finding the personal in the profound, and the intimate against a backdrop of tumultuous events. Not the story we want, perhaps, but one we need, told straight.

Directed by: Gary Ross

Country: US

Year: 2016

Running Time: 139 mins

Certificate: 15 for hard truths, belt tightening, and roast dog.

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