‘Free State of Jones’ Review: The ‘All Lives Matter’ Civil War Movie You Didn’t Ask For
Watching Free State of Jones transported me back in time, but not back to the Civil War era. The 139-minute war drama took me back to high school on the days when my U.S. History teacher would play a historical movie, like 1986's Glory, in place of a lesson plan. But if any teacher is looking to add a new movie to their syllabus, it shouldn’t be Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones.
On one hand, Free State of Jones is an ideal history lesson as far as structure is concerned. Directed by Ross (The Hunger Games), the movie plays like a plodding bullet-point presentation on the life of Newton Knight (played by a solid if unremarkable Matthew McConaughey), the real-life farmer who started a group of Confederate rebels. The film jumps between various years during the war and to the 1948 court case about the racial genealogy of Knight’s great-grandson Davis Knight. Broken up by title cards of dates plastered across the screen, each chapter is introduced with historical footage and photographs from the time period. If Ross’ intention was to recreate the tedium of a boring history book, he’s succeeded, but it certainly doesn’t make for an engaging movie-watching experience.
The real problem with Free State of Jones though isn’t that it plays like a dull history special, but how it tells its story with ignorance and colorblindness. Written by Ross and Leonard Hartman, Free State of Jones focuses on the events in Jones County, Mississippi, where Knight formed a band of Confederate deserters. You see, the poor white farmers don’t own slaves so they saw no reason to keeping fighting in a war to maintain slavery. They aren’t Union sympathizers nor do they necessarily believe in the emancipation of slaves. But these poor white farmers are angry at the Confederates and plantation owners who steal their crops and burn their farms. Knight forms his own outlaw company to attack the army, steal back the farmers’ crops, and protect their underprivileged white families. This is not a Civil War movie about race; it’s one about class disputes and sympathizes with white people.
Telling Knight’s story is one thing; telling it in a vacuum is another. Ross’ film spends the majority of its runtime on white people problems and asks its audience to sympathize with a less-afflicted group of people while disregarding the persecution of the black community. And it doesn’t take a historian to know there were much worse things going on in the Confederate States during the early 1860s than white people’s corn being stolen.
Free State of Jones also turns these white characters into heroes, even though many of them spew racist comments at the runaway slaves living in the Jones County swampland. There are some moments in Free State of Jones dedicated to the black characters’ lives, many of which mark the film’s strongest moments. Mahershala Ali (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay) gives the film’s most poignant performance as Moses, a runaway slave wearing a spiked iron collar on his neck. The actor of color with the most screen time is Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beyond the Lights) as Rachel, a slave who helps Knight escape once he deserts the army. But even her agency is undercut when Knight becomes the stereotypical white savior when he swoops in, falls in love with her, and gets revenge on her plantation owner rapist.
Almost every time a black person begins to speak in this movie or stand up for themselves a white person steps in to either channel racist hatred or save them. In one scene when Moses attempts to rescue his son Knight stops him, insisting that he, as a white man, should be the one to do it. In another scene Knight leads a group of marching black men to the polls when they try to vote. While Knight’s role in aiding and supporting people of color in the movie can be regarded as a revolutionary act for the time, in today’s context Free State of Jones paints the white men as the only heroes in this story.
One scene in particular captures just how troublesome the film’s whitewashing and latently racist narrative is to a contemporary audience. During a funeral ceremony, Knight looks down at the body of a dead white boy and, in a rousing monologue, says, “We’re all some man’s n---er.” This line appropriates a hateful racial slur to describe a white man’s oppression; even worse, it equates white hardships with that of black people. Ross’ film assumes that a white man being hung for deserting the army is the same as being a slave and existing as a person of color in America at that time.
That’s what makes me worry most about future high schoolers watching Free State of Jones, or even say, Trump supporters. In today’s context, Knight’s message is essentially what’s known as “All Lives Matter.” The phrase, a response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement, insists that regardless of race, all lives deserve protection. But the very problematic and dangerous implications of this ideology, which activist Marissa J. Johnson has called a “racial slur,” are that it denounces the violence and oppression faced by people of color and other minorities.
The last thing America needs is a historical movie correlating white people problems with those of people of color. At least there's The Birth of a Nation to look forward to this fall, which should prove to be an interesting comparison to Free State of Jones and other white savior dramas.