Matthew McConaughey stars in this period piece as Newton Knight, a commendably idealistic farmer, who assumed leadership of a small Mississippi state during the American Civil War. Director Gary Ross adapted his screenplay from the story by Leonard Hartman.
At well over two hours in length, The Free State of Jones contains much enlightening information about the American Civil War. The inclusion of so many facts is, however, a tad overwhelming and becomes outright confusing when the film cuts to scenes from a 1948 miscegenation trial in which “Newt” Knight’s great-grandson, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is the key defendant.
The film certainly scores highly on liberal values. It attacks the carnage of war, political and judicial corruption, discrimination and inequality based on race, gender, wealth and religion. Whether it is pro or anti-gun control is, however, a moot point. Throughout the film, men, women and children assert their constitutional right to bear arms.
The attention to detail paid by production designer Philip Messina and costume designer Louise Frogley, combined with the skills of cinematographer Benoit Delhomme and editor Pamela Martin, produces a sense of immediate engagement in the audience — which is not for the squeamish. From the early battle scenes onwards there are many scenes of violence and death that must have kept the fake blood suppliers very happy.
An antidote to the blood and gore comes from the gentle romance between Knight and Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the former “house slave” who becomes his common law wife. This relationship is portrayed sensitively and believably. McConaughey, Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali lead a large cast, all of whom give excellent performances throughout.
Gary Ross would, however, surely have done better to make two films — one about Newton Knight and the other about his descendant. Both stories are enthralling but simply too much for one film.