It is easy to assume that all essential stories from the American Civil War already have been told. Interest in the era was rekindled by Ken Burns' career-making, 10-hours-plus 1990 documentary Civil War — still the most-watched series presented by PBS — and has only grown since that time through countless historical works, novels and feature films from Cold Mountain to Lincoln.
Ten years' worth of original research by filmmaker Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) resulted in Free State of Jones, which tells the little-known but extraordinary tale of Newton "Newt" Knight. (Ross even created a sprawling website — www.freestateofjones.info — devoted to his research and intended to prove the veracity of Knight's story as told in the film.) An enlisted man and medic in the Confederate army, Knight went on to lead an armed uprising against rebel forces during the war in rural Jones County, Mississippi and founded a mixed-race community. His story undermines cultural stereotypes and supports a more complex understanding of the Civil War-era South.
All that history seems like more of a burden than an asset to the oddly constructed Free State of Jones. It begins as a character-driven historical drama but loses its way trying to cover more ground than a 139-minute film can handle. In its final third, the film repeatedly jumps forward a year or two at a time to impart historical information that doesn't mix with scenes of raw emotion — like a Wikipedia page with dramatic re-enactments. The film is full of powerful moments and performances, but Ross ultimately can't settle on a single method for telling his story.
Those late scenes address the Reconstruction era, a complicated time seldom depicted accurately in Hollywood movies. But that only makes Free State of Jones seem like more of a missed opportunity. Further complicating matters is Ross' decision to flash forward to 1948 throughout the film for scenes involving Knight's great-grandson, Davis Knight, who was put on trial in Mississippi under miscegenation laws that barred interracial marriage. (Though he appeared white, Davis Knight would be considered African-American if the state could prove that his great-grandmother was the freed slave Rachel Knight, who became Newt Knight's common-law wife.) This material is an awkward and long-winded way to show how slowly real progress came to Mississippi after the war.
Matthew McConaughey was an obvious choice to play Newt but that doesn't make him any less effective in the role, though he occasionally overplays the heroics at the heart of Knight's story. The supporting cast makes the most of often-disjointed material. The film was shot in and around New Orleans and Lafayette and features actors familiar from local stages and hundreds of extras from the region. Ross did an excellent job finding locations and structures that pass for 19th-century Jones County, an area less than 150 miles from New Orleans.
As written by Ross, Free State of Jones forges a connection to today's world through a dual emphasis on racial equality and economic disparity — the latter famously encapsulated in a description of the conflict as "a rich man's war but a poor man's fight." There's a Robin Hood aspect to Knight's story that is hard to resist. It serves as a welcome reminder that some issues transcend even long-held political divisions.