According to imdb.com, the premise for the film Free State of Jones is, “As civil war divides the nation, a poor farmer from Mississippi leads a group of rebels against the Confederate Army.” It’s also about a 1947 trial against Davis Knight, a white man whose parentage is called into question by the local court because he married a white woman and was arrested for a racial crime.
In writer/director Gary Ross’ film (story by Leonard Hartman), the audience is supposed to root for Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey), a poor white farmer who has deserted the Confederate Army because he no longer wants to pledge his life for rich plantation owners to keep their slaves. He also leads a rebellion against the oppression of the Confederate soldiers who have taken to ransacking the residents of Jones County MI, for their food that they keep stored up for the winter. Newt even likens the struggle of the white residents, who have their freedom, to the slaves, saying: “Sooner or later, we’re all someone’s n**ger.” Seriously?
It’s painfully obvious that it’s easy for Newt to say these things because he actually has a say in how he lives his life, even though Confederate soldiers are looking to hang him for deserting. But just because he’s living amongst some runaway slaves doesn’t mean he fully understands the struggle. A better embodiment of that struggle is Moses (Mahershala Ali), who spends a portion of the film with a spiked, iron shackle around his neck; which looks like an invention from Hellraiser. He and the rebels take back three counties in Mississippi from Confederate control and rename them the Free State of Jones so that all men can be free. It’s a noble idea.
Meanwhile, Newt’s wife, Serena (Keri Russell), has taken their son and left for Virginia. Because, he’s sort of single, Newt falls in love with a slave girl named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and they have a child. It should be stated, by the way, that McConaughey and Mbatha-Raw have almost no chemistry and never even kiss on screen. However, Davis Knight (with his full lips as “black features”) is supposed to be their descendent and presumably unaware that he has one drop of “black blood” running through his veins. Again, the audience is supposed to rally behind Davis in his plight when he gets a taste of actually being treated as a black man.
The ignorance surrounding this film is so culpable that it’s hard to just sit back and root for it. First, this is yet another slave film that paints the white man as the hero and portrays the black man as just glad to have someone white around to save the day; because as Newt puts it, he’ll be arrested and Moses would be killed for standing up to the oppressors.
Likewise, watching this film with a small audience of non-Blacks and hearing their take on the film is disheartening. There are still people in America who don’t know that the KKK started as a result of southern whites who were angry that blacks were given freedom and other inalienable rights, like being able to vote. They don’t know that slaves endured atrocities, like rape and being whipped for having the nerve to stand up for themselves, on a daily basis just because they were considered property and not human beings.
With Free State of Jones, the heart of the story never comes into focus. Are we worried about Davis going to jail for being “black”? Is this supposed to be a film about the antebellum South from a white perspective? It appears the film – which had an estimated $50 million budget – was put together haphazardly and Ross realized toward the end of filming that there should be something about the black struggle in it. But really, it’s just white guilt trying to atone for white oppression by saying “See, white people suffered, too!”
Considering that actor/director/producer Nate Parker is telling a slave story about a true rebellion and did it for only $7 million makes Free State of Jones even more like a sad attempt to get black eye balls for green box office dollars. Do yourselves a favor, skip Free State and save your money for Birth of a Nation.