Film Review: Free State of Jones (Gary Ross, 2016) ★★★★

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Based on true events in Mississippi 1862, a farmer and medic for the Confederate Army, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), flees his position which brands him an enemy of the State. Opposed to slavery and having witnessed the horrors of battle, Newt returns home to Jones County to safeguard his family - leading a rebellion which will go down in history.

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Written and directed by four-time Oscar nominee, Gary Ross (perhaps best known for Seabiscuit,  2003 and  Pleasantville, 1998),  Free State of Jones follows the tale of historic figure, Newton Knight (McConaughey) as he leads an extraordinary and compelling rebellion against the State during the Civil War. As a deserter, Newt successfully rallies his own community, enforcing the notion that the real enemy are the wealthy landowners who take a large tax from the poor. Made up primarily of small farmers, widows and black slaves who are tired of working to keep the rich in splendour and "fighting for cotton", the ever-growing infantry take refuge in the Louisiana swamps before declaring their own land a Free State.

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Opening to some graphic, violence scenes of war (a similar ilk to that of Saving Private Ryan, 1998) it's abundantly clear that Ross is not playing games. Shot with stunning cinematography, Ross is able to use spacial editing and contrasting to convey the many different ways of life portrayed within the narrative. The crowded, claustrophobic scenes of a grisly war is superbly juxtapositioned against the sometimes unearthly yet tranquil setting of the swamps which protect Newt's community; and again against the vast yet dying patches of farm land which have been stolen from farmers by the powerful upper-class. 

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Whilst not the film's only success, Oscar-winner McConaughey is instrumental in making Free State of Jones an accomplishment. Portrayed as a gaunt yet powerful figure with the ability to influence those around him, Newt is enraged by the futility of war and even more so by the treatment of the slaves with whom he considers himself equal - a rare opinion of the time. Whilst Newt’s rebellion grew fast and strong, there are still many hurdles and McConaughney is able to excellently portray the angst in which Newt feels that he is forever restricted. Ross reminds us, however, that Knight’s victories were only part of the battle as he injects a flash forward to Knight’s real-life relative Davis Knight as he experiences the same prejudice appearing on trial in 1948 for interracial marriage throughout the film. 

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With the exception of Tap Roots (George Marshall, 1948) Newton Knight’s story had yet to be told on the Big Screen, especially on a scale of this size. Having taken a decade to research and recreate, Ross worked consistently with historians and Knight’s real-life ancestors to make the narrative and direction as accurate as possible. In terms of authenticity, there are of course some scenes created for the purposes of aiding the story or for ‘entertainment value’. Whilst the relationship with Newt and the character of Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali – House of Cards) is fictionalised, it represents a real life relationship between white farmers and black slaves during the Civil War; signifying a turning point in the ‘abolishing’ of the slave trade. Furthermore, Newt is of course painted heavily as a heroic protagonist – possibly quite a bias representation in his favour and therefore a negative image of the State. We do, however, see Newt’s anger and horrendously violent measures he goes to in support of his case – thus providing a somewhat balanced representation overall.

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Released in US cinemas in early September and having received mostly average reviews; it is arguable that Free State of Jones shines a harsh light on a shameful segment of US history that America would much rather forget – something Ross is famed for doing with the Civil Rights Movement in Pleasantville. Unlike Pleasantville, however, Ross does not allow the subject matter to become in anyway hidden behind symbolism or metaphors. Free State of Jones offers up a full frontal, gritty story, hell-bent on portraying historical truth – even if there are still many to this day who deny Newton Knight’s heroic status. 

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Equipped with all the tools for Oscar recognition, Free State of Jones is an incredibly moving, all-guns-blazing portrayal of a man who brought down the State. McConaughey delivers another stellar performance in this hugely political statement on America’s violent past with whom the values stand just as strong today. Free State of Jones gets a Sophie star rating of 4 stars - I strongly urge you all to give it a watch and be moved by this very real narrative. 

Free State of Jones is in UK cinemas on 30th September - Will you be seeing it this weekend? What films have you found moving or powerful? As always I love reading your comment so please do leave me lots of lovely ones below. 

Until next time movie lovers,



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8 comments:

  1. I have to say, I was not interested in seeing this one before I read your review. I think a lot of American film goers are definitely in a state of racial tension at the moment - this might not be the film they're looking to see. But more so, I think for myself and some other critics, there was concern over another Civil War story being told with a "white savior" type at the helm. Curious how you felt about that aspect when watching.

    -Alex
    www.onecriticalbitch.com

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    1. I got the impression that whilst he was white, there was at no point a sense that he was doing anything which made him better than anyone else really. He clearly views himself as equal to the slaves and I don't think he does it for any other reason but because they have no voice themselves. Someone had to speak up I guess - I think the film does a very good job as portraying them as equal and not him as a "white saviour" as such. I think it's definitely worth watching

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  2. Overall, I liked this film and I think it's well worth watching. I didn't know that there was an insurrection against the South of this nature and that was fascinating. As for this being a "white savior" movie, I think there's some validity in this charge especially regarding the dynamic between Moses and Newton. Despite this, the interplay between them produces some poignant scenes.

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    1. I feel that with films of this nature, you can always pick holes such as that but I didn't get a sense of it being a "white saviour" movie - I think Ross went to extreme lengths to ensure accuracy so I think he was aiming for a biopic overall. I definitely think it's worth seeing however you view it :)

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  3. This definitely isn't my type of film genre that I would normally go for, but I feel like it's worth a good view because of your rating of it! You've sold it me x

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    1. Ah really? That surprises me a little - what would you say your type is? Ha glad to hear it babe. I think it's important to see for a number of reasons but also because it's a really well made film :) xx

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