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Screen Gems review: "Free State Of Jones"

Courtesy: STX Entertainment

May 13, 2016
"Free State Of Jones"
Studio: STX Entertainment
Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images


Matthew McConaughey stars as southern famer Newton Knight. During the Civil War he serves the Confederate Army as a nurse but following a tragedy Knight deserts. He makes his way back home and after several lucky turns and unexplainable coincidences, he finds himself hiding in a swamp with a group of escaped slaves. Without much explanation, the group takes him in and Knight begins formulating a plan to establish an area where all men regardless of skin color are free.

He and the escaped slaves join forces with disillusioned farmers and local slaves to fight against the Confederacy from the inside. After several surprising successes, Knight turns Jones County, Mississippi into the Free State of Jones and secedes from the Confederate States.

Written and directed by Gary Ross, the film tries to deliver a message about enlightenment and equality. But its biggest failure is how Knight turns into a hero without much explanation or logic to support his actions. Clumsy dialogue and a disturbing propensity to have Knight repeatedly rush to the rescue of the "poor black folk" serve as prime examples of how not to make a racially sensitive film.

Knight's actions as a white savior allow him to meld the escaped slaves with the poor whites into a cohesive fighting unit. In a time when race was a defining factor in how people treated each other, this very different group only argues about the topic once. The rest of the time is spent on Knight's crusade for economic equality. He wants to elevate the poor out of poverty so they can enjoy the benefits and riches of America. And, by the way, he also wants all of the black people to be free. it's convenient that the two goals line up so well.

Knight is so dedicated to his cause that he abandons his wife and child to marry a woman of mixed race named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). The decision is used as a sledgehammer to keep reminding us how saintly and progressive his views really are.

Once we get to the end of the war, Knight must deal with Reconstruction and how it impacts his little corner of the country. The movie uses several scenes which mirror modern day racial atrocities. They include a mass church shooting, moms worrying about their sons becoming victims of violence and black voters being turned away from the polls.

There is nothing subtle about this story, even in moments when subtlety would have been very welcome. The issues this movie addresses are literally broken down into black and white. There are no shades of grey. Of course, real life isn't that simple.

On my rating scale, "The Free State Of Jones" earns ONE DIAMOND out of four. It's very clumsy, self righteous and heavy handed.

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