Oh no, another movie about a white savior coming to rescue those poor, hapless black people? Well, sort of. The savior in this case is Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), who at least is a very real, and quite controversial figure in American history. The Mississippi-born Knight was a disillusioned Confederate soldier during the Civil War who deserted from the Army and set out to establish a "Free State of Jones" where blacks and whites could live together in harmony. In the north they see him as a freedom fighter; down south...well, not so much.
But Gary Ross' Free State of Jones has a pretty clear idea of who Knight is. As played with shallow soulfulness by Matthew McConaughey he's Braveheart with an unkempt beard. He's a one-dimensional warrior/messiah fighting for what's right because somebody has to. Hardly the most compelling take on Knight's tale, but that's the airbrushed trek through history that Ross wants to take us on, even it's so generic as to fail to inspire much feeling at all.
A big part of the problem is Knight's life, which is full of battles and just causes and enemies, but no decisive victories. There's nothing to give Ross' screenplay a clear direction, and so the ponderous 140-minute runtime begins to feel like a week-long miniseries on The History Channel. Knight's good-guy heroics begin as he's an Army medic during the war, where he sees first hand who the real victims of the fighting are. It's the poor, who can't afford to worm their way out of service like the wealthy slave-holding families can. He sees Confederate soldiers breaking into homes, violently looting all they have and coming back for more. Post-Emancipation he sees an "apprenticeship" law go into effect that is effectively slavery under a different name.
All of these injustices are what drives Knight, even though we never see how they directly impact him. There's no depth to him or any of the choices he makes, and the screenplay cuts so many corners that we never really care. Eventually Knight stands up to a regiment of Confederate soldiers, because it's the right thing to do, and flees into the Mississippi swamps where he's taken in by a handful of former slaves who become, basically, his sidekicks as he wages war against the entire Confederate military. Soon other deserters join their ranks; we know because a handy title card tells us so, and Knight's small band grows into an imposing army that can no longer be ignored. And of course this group, made up of blacks and whites in equal measure, get along with much of a hitch. There's no room for too much tension in Ross' vision, but he does stop for an awkward exchange in which Knight asks "How you ain’t a nigger?" to a white man referring to Moses in that way. In rather poor fashion he's trying to say they all are just being used by the wealthy to fight their wars and make them richer. Everybody apparently gets it without much debate.
While there are occasional skirmishes that break out, the film is about Knight's life and the apparent impact he's had on the racial landscape. Keri Russell is sorely wasted in a do-nothing role as his first wife, but Knight soon after takes up with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a former slave. This leads to the film's most curious aspect, a leap forward 85 years into the future to show a court case involving Knight and Rachel's mixed-race great-grandson, on trial for marrying a white woman. Court cases in movies are almost always dull, but there's nothing quite so boring as watching a cinematic courtroom session with characters who aren't really part of the narrative. Every time we jump back into the future, and it happens more than a few times, it brings what little momentum there is to a dead halt. But it's easy to see why Ross felt the need to put those scenes in there. Knight's story has no coup de grace moment, and his cultural impact is dubious at best. While he remains an interesting and unique figure, his relevance is impossible to quantify, and Free State of Jones doesn't do much to make it any clearer.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5