I screened FREE STATE OF JONES last Thursday night, and really debated with myself if I would share a review or not. It wasn’t that I felt the film, which was released nationwide in theaters on Friday, was bad. However, I do have some reservations about my judgement due to the content and theme of the film, and the timing of its release prior to the Sundance hit THE BIRTH OF A NATION – which will portray the true story of real life African-American slave/preacher/activist/martyr/hero Nat Turner on the big screen.
In “Free State of Jones,” Matthew McConaughey plays Newt Knight, a Mississippi farmer who, after losing his teen nephew in a battle and realizing the poor are fighting a “rich man’s war,” leads white farmers and runaway slaves in a revolt against the confederacy during the Civil War.
Academy award-nominated writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games, Big) heavily weaves a story that puts on display Knight’s civil rights efforts, his falling in love and taking as common law wife a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and even introduces (somewhat awkwardly about a quarter of the way through the film) an alternate storyline, which finds his great-grandson embroiled in a 1948 court battle and accused of committing miscegenation (marriage of two people from different backgrounds, in this case black and white).
McConaughey, Mbatha-Raw, and several of the rebels – especially Mahershala Ali as escaped slave Moses – give outstanding performances, despite the fact that it felt like the movie was inserting every piece of information Ross located about Knight’s actions after the war – which made it drag like an after-school special that should have been two parts instead of one.
Add that to the fact that I’d already felt like this was just another version of the white hero saves the day story, which seems to have no problem getting greenlit in Hollywood, and it certainly didn’t help my skepticism – or the fact that I admittedly checked my watch at least three times during the 2:19 minute run.
With all that said, the fight scenes were compelling, and I appreciate that, in his storytelling, Ross didn’t omit that it would not have been paradise amongst the rebels – where including slaves was concerned. Again not a bad film, just one I would have preferred to watch in the comfort of my home versus the theater.
But Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” on the other hand…I’m just saying, there with bells on.
That’s my take, but you know the drill – would certainly appreciate hearing yours in the comments!
Until next thought, Thomasena