DON’T READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN FREE STATE OF JONES AND DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED
It’s too late to fix the Free State of Jones , director-writer Gary Ross’ well-meaning historical drama about the curious case of Newton Knight, an army deserter who inspired a mixed race coalition of Mississippi farmers and runaway slaves to revolt against the Confederacy during the Civil War. The film’s already come out, been panned by critics, rejected by audiences and declared a box office bomb, currently sitting at just $19m domestic off of a $50m production budget. That’s a shame because the story the film has to tell is truly fascinating; the way it tells that story, though, well ScreenZealots put it best:
Free State of Jones should be required viewing for all students. Students of history? No, students of the art of filmmaking. This mess of a movie may feature the compelling historical figure Newton Knight, but the film’s overall poorly executed storytelling ultimately sinks it to the depths of blah-ness.
Gary Ross devoted a decade of his life to getting this made, to the point that he only agreed to write and direct the first Hunger Games because he believed it would give him the extra clout to finally get Jones made. Yet as Francis Lawrence stepped in to direct all of the Hunger Games sequels Ross still struggled to find funding, even after Matthew McConaughey, fresh off of Dallas Buyers Club, joined the project. Oddly, this seemingly quixotic quest to bring the world a new angle on the Civil War and the subsequent birth of the Jim Crow South only ended when the Chinese-backed studio STX Entertainment stepped up to the plate. It took Chinese money to give us this Civil War movie.
Ross, who ended up working for scale and paying some of the actors out of his own pocket, had an easier solution staring him straight in the face the entire time, and that leads me to the first and most obvious way Free State could have been better:
1. It Should Have Been a Mini-Series
Ross has referenced Gone With the Wind in multiple interviews, pointing to it as one of the only other films to address not just the Civil War but also the post-Civil War Reconstruction. As he told SlashFilm, “[Gone With the Wind] didn’t tell the truth [about Reconstruction]. The chance to set the record straight is something that appealed to me.”
And that is absolutely Jones‘ most striking achievement. It is not so much a movie about a rebellion as it is the story of what happened when those who rebelled realized their victory was hollow. Where you would expect the movie to end it keeps on going, revealing just how little actually changed in the South after the Civil War and how the region’s ingrained racism was codified into law to the point that people were still fighting the same old battles all the way into the next century, directly impacting one of Knight’s ancestors.
Here’s the thing about that, though. Gone With the Wind was the Titanic of its day, a big budget, ultra-long historical drama which did record business and won most of the awards the year it came out. But that was back in 1939, the year this newfangled device called TV went on exhibit at the World’s Fair. Wind had the luxury of being four hours long (with intermissions), and covering Scarlett O’Hara’s life from 1861 to 1873. Jones has no such luxury, forced to cram nearly a decade of Knight’s life and one monumental court case in his great-grandson’s life into a 139 minute running time.
If you tried to make Gone With the Wind now, you’d have to make it a miniseries (and work hard to write out all of Margaret Mitchell’s casual racism). That’s what Ross should have done with Jones, maybe set up shop for a 3 night event at HBO. Why not? They clearly liked being in the Matthew McConaughey business with the exemplary first season of True Detective.
As a film, Jones simply tries to do too much. Not only do we see Knight fight in the Civil War, lead a rebellion and fight racial injustice after the war. We also see him fall in love with a slave named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), and father a child with her, and then allow his white wife Serena (Keri Russell), who took Knight’s first born son and fled to Georgia during the war, to return home to live with them. Knight greets this development almost like, “Oh, yeah. I did have a son out there somewhere. Totally forgot about that.” Beyond all of that drama, so much history is covered Ross frequently cuts corners through the use of History Channel-esque intertitles.
As a mini-series, Jones could actually dramatize some of those moments we are simply told about, such as the way Knight’s troops simply waited out the Confederate army in the swamps for three months until the Civil War ended. Elsewhere, characterizations could have been deepened, allowing such potentially powerful moments as Rachel breaking down into tears upon touching her former master’s bed to pack more of an emotional punch.
One way to do it: The first episode ends with Knight’s ambush of slave owners in the swamp. The second episode ends with the close of the Civil War. The third episode covers the Reconstruction. Maybe you could slice it a bit differently, or maybe it would only need two episodes, not three.
The counterpoint to all of this is 12 Years a Slave, recent proof that you still can make a film set in slavery-era South and cover a small chunk of history without sacrificing quality. However, Jones is more trying to pull of something similar to what Ezra Edelman did in his masterful documentary series O.J.: Made in America, and he had 6 episodes to establish just how much the trial of O.J. Simpsons was the pinnacle of decades of fractured race relations in California. 139 minutes simply wasn’t enough for Jones to properly pull off a similar trick of connecting the 1948 court case of Davis Knight to the 1863-1865 rebellion of Newton Knight and subsequent Reconstruction of the South.
2. Use the Court Case as a Framing Device, Not An Abrupt Intrusion Which Comes and Goes at Random
A quarter of the way into the movie, Knight meets a Rachel when she’s called upon to help his sick, infant son make it through the night. The next morning, he gifts her a gold necklace as thanks. Right around the time their goodbye goes on just a little too long causing you to suspect romance is in the air the film abruptly cuts to a Mississippi court house in 1948.
WTF? Why are we suddenly in 1948? A simple country lawyer informs the jury they are gathered to decide whether or not Davis Knight, Newton’s great-grandson, is guilty of miscegenation. He looks white, and married a white woman. However, the prosecution contends he is descended from Rachel and Newton Knight, not Serena and Newton, as Davis grew up believing. If true, that means Davis meets the minimum requirement of one-eighth African ancestry to be legally considered a “Negro” in Mississippi thus making him guilty of miscegenation.
Quick note: Amazingly, this did actually happento Newton’s great-grandson. His case went to the state supreme court.
And, just like that, we cut back to the 1860s and Newton gets on with starting his rebellion. Any intrigue we had about Newton’s clear connection with Rachel is gone. The film has just suddenly jumped to the end of the book and told us the ending.
On the one hand, it’s a bold move, letting us know the impact of the events we are about to watch unfold were still felt in the region nearly a century later. On the other hand, it’s needlessly jarring, and the transition back to the 1860s isn’t entirely smooth.
Jones returns back to this 1948 setting a couple more times after that, finally building up to a finale where Newton’s decision to stand his ground and protect his home is reflected in his great-grandson’s choice to stand up to the court and its bullshit justice. It thus functions as a framing device which doesn’t actually frame the whole story since it’s not introduced until we’re 30 minutes into the story.
Why not open AND close the film in 1948? Pull a Saving Private Ryan, the WWII movie framed around an old man’s tear-filled visit to a cemetery. Maybe even look to The Devil’s Advocate, which uses Keanu Reeves crisis of conscious in a court house bathroom as its jumping off point. Do something similar with Davis. Throw some exposition at us in the court. Follow him to the bathroom as he washes his face while deciding whether to cop a plea or take a stand. Close in on his eyes as he looks at himself in the mirror. Cut to a close-up of McConaughey’s eyes during the Battle of Corinth.
Maybe I’m just straight up ripping off Saving Private Ryan with that close-up on the eye thing. Either way, now we’re in the Civil War, and we’ve been teased with basic information about what Newton Knight will accomplish. We’ve also been similarly spoiled about the fate of his love life, but at least this way it’s less jarring. It’s also less jarring when we return back to 1948 as periodic reminders and thematic reflections of what’s going on in the story at that specific moment.
The alternate solution would be to cut the 1948 sequences altogether, which is understandable since they do seem so jarring as is. However, if reconfigured they could do a better job of completing Ross’ final point about how the battles fought by Knight and his army were still being fought by their children and their children’s children.
3. Give the Black Characters More Agency
Newton Knight has to walk a fine line while leading his soldiers, a motley crew of army deserters, disgruntled farmers and runaway slaves. The white guys in his camp would rather fight for him than the Confederacy, but that doesn’t mean they’re not racist. Whenever he comes close to implying their rebellion is about race and freeing slaves then he gets pushback. When he sticks to his class-based talking point about how he’s tired of seeing their friends and family die just so those plantation owners can have their cotton then he does well.
This appears to be based in actual history. For economic reasons, many of Mississippi’s small family-owned farms never supported seceding from the Union in the first place, and “Jones County had only a 12 percent slave population, fewer than any other county in Mississippi.” Moreover, the Confederacy really did pass a “Twenty Negro” law which stated any plantation owner who possessed 20 or more slaves was exempt from fighting in the war. And they really did ransack the country for supplies, leaving many women and children starving through harsh winters.
To simplify it, the black men in Knight’s army were fighting for their freedom, and the white guys were fighting for their farms and families. Once the war was over, life went on as before for the white guys whereas the freed slaves were abandoned by most of their temporary white allies and largely forced back into servitude. As Ross told SlashFilm:
No sooner was technical emancipation granted than the former Confederates got their land and their power back and began passing laws which were called The Black Codes that were a form of re-enslavement and driving people back to the plantation, driving freed men back to the plantation. And what ensued was a 10-year struggle over the meaning of freedom, which sadly led to an abdication by the North, a quasi-victory by the South, the re-institution of a kind of agrarian labor system that morphed into sharecropping and the birth of Jim Crow. So there’s no happy ending there. And there’s no false Hollywood ending there. I’d rather tell the truth than give people a false happy ending or some false satisfaction.
However, prior to reaching that point Jones oddly feels like a movie about race which is sometimes too afraid to actually talk about race. As Pajiba argued about the film’s first half:
The Free State of Jones goes out of its way to avoid having its main character condemn slavery, or even to acknowledge institutional racism as an inciting factor in the Civil War. Instead, we are told, the American South’s injustice springs from the way it discriminates based on class […]
Moreover, there are some inevitable White Savior tropes:
The Free State of Jones is a tale of a white man co-opting a primarily black struggle. And yet the black characters are almost completely sidelined. Black characters do suffer here on the basis of their race, and more than the white characters do—it’s impossible to avoid the basic historical facts of what life for black people was like both during and shortly after the Civil War. But when the movie shows that suffering, it’s as a precondition for White Savior Matthew McConaughey to do something heroic.
As this kind of story is now all to familiar, we end up being more drawn to the little things on the side, like how Rachel sneaks supplies to Newton and his men in the swamp (presumably, she was stealing them from her plantation owner) or a post-Civil War sequence involving one of Newton’s black friends going from field to field to register former slaves to vote. There could have been more of that, and less of Newton walking away from a burning pile of cotton like an action hero. Arguably, due to setting and time period Ross was limited in the ways in which he could grant his black characters agency, but those moments when he did prove more interesting than when their suffering simply sets up a big Matthew McConaughey Oscar moment.
But those are just some of my suggestions. What are yours? Or do you think the movie is perfectly okay the way it is? Or do you think there’s nothing worth fixing here? Let me know in the comments.