Historical films have a fine line to walk between being entertaining and being informative. Free State of Jones does a great job entertaining the audience at times but unfortunately gets bogged down by preachy over-emphasis in its message about equality far too often at the expense of the story and entertainment value. Director Gary Ross takes an exciting story about a man standing up against tyranny and squeezes in so many lessons about the same message about equality that the whole film loses its way. It’s too bad because there are great performances and stories that ultimately get lost in this mess.
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a medical for the southern army in the civil war until a boy from his home is drafted and promptly killed. Knight decides the boy must be returned to his mother and deserts only to find the tax men are taking people’s entire livelihoods in order to pay for the plantation owner’s war. He soon ends up hiding in the swamp with a group of slaves lead by Moses (Mahershala Ali, House of Cards) and falling for a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Soon they are engaged in a highly entertaining Robin Hood-type tit for tat against the tax men as more deserters and slaves join Knight’s cause.
Although the story sounds great on paper, unfortunately it doesn’t take long for the narrative to get bogged down by awful storytelling. As soon as we meet Rachel, the audience is suddenly taken to 1950s Mississippi for one line of dialogue where Knights descendant is denied marriage for being 1/8 black. All magic from Knight and Rachel’s romance dies there. The “future” storyline continues to interrupt for a line or two throughout the film, ruining almost every scene the two have. There are also actual historical pictures dropped in here and there that are kind of neat, but don’t add much to the story.
The actual historical development of the Free State of Jones where Knights forces have liberated three countries and freed people of both races it is barely in the film, same as the battle to overthrow the Confederation and win the counties. Both are done in the blink of an eye and are totally underexplored in service for a storyline about the reconstruction phase after the war, which is nothing but preaching and is, quite frankly, half-an-hour of boredom and repetition. The only thing of importance that happens after the war is the lynching of a key character (a free man running for office!). Although the whole time the events are unfolding, most will want the story to go back and explore the Free State and the battle that led to its creation.
McConaughey and Ali are exceptional in their parts, as is Mbatha-Raw. Ali’s Moses is really the high point as he conveys a lot with his looks and mannerisms throughout. Mbatha-Raw plays her role with true conviction, but it’s really a shame the romance gets sullied by bad storytelling. McConaughey is, of course, great as the moody Knight, but his performance is typecast with lots of the thousand-yard-stares that have made him plenty rich.
It was truly disturbing to watch such a fascinating story be obliterated by clumsy election-year storytelling. It seems Ross doesn’t want “the candidate who must not be named” in office so badly he was willing to sacrifice his movie for redundant and boring preaching about equality, when he already had a great movie about equality before he took a herd of dead horses and beat them over and over and over…and over.