Based on true events in Mississippi 1862, a farmer and medic for the Confederate Army, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), flees his position which brands him an enemy of the State. Opposed to slavery and having witnessed the horrors of battle, Newt returns home to Jones County to safeguard his family – leading a rebellion which will go down in history.

Written and directed by four-time Oscar nominee, Gary Ross (perhaps best known for Seabiscuit,  2003 and  Pleasantville, 1998),  Free State of Jones follows the tale of historic figure, Newton Knight (McConaughey) as he leads an extraordinary and compelling rebellion against the State during the Civil War. As a deserter, Newt successfully rallies his own community, enforcing the notion that the real enemy are the wealthy landowners who take a large tax from the poor. Made up primarily of small farmers, widows and black slaves who are tired of working to keep the rich in splendour and “fighting for cotton”, the ever-growing infantry take refuge in the Louisiana swamps before declaring their own land a ‘Free State’.

Opening to some graphic, violent scenes of war (a similar ilk to that of Saving Private Ryan, 1998) it’s abundantly clear that Ross is not playing games. Shot with stunning cinematography, Ross is able to use spacial editing and contrasting to convey the many different ways of life portrayed within the narrative. The crowded, claustrophobic scenes of a grisly war is superbly juxtapositioned against the sometimes unearthly yet tranquil setting of the swamps which protect Newt’s community; and again against the vast yet dying patches of farm land which have been stolen from farmers by the powerful upper-class.

Whilst not the film’s only success, Oscar-winner McConaughey is instrumental in making Free State of Jones an accomplishment.  Portrayed as a gaunt yet powerful figure with the ability to influence those around him, Newt is enraged by the futility of war and even more so by the treatment of the slaves with whom he considers himself equal – a rare opinion of the time. Whilst Newt’s rebellion grew fast and strong, there are still many hurdles and McConaughey is able to excellently portray the angst in which Newt feels that he is forever restricted. Ross reminds us, however, that Knight’s victories were only part of the battle as he injects a flash forward to Knight’s real-life relative Davis Knight as he experiences the same prejudice appearing on trial in 1948 for interracial marriage throughout the film.

With the exception of perhaps Tap Roots (George Marshall, 1948) Newton Knight’s story had yet to be told on the Big Screen, especially on a scale of this size. Having taken a decade to research and recreate, Ross worked consistently with historians and Knight’s real-life ancestors to make the narrative and direction as accurate as possible. In terms of authenticity, there are of course some scenes created for the purposes of aiding the story or for ‘entertainment value’. Whilst the relationship with Newt and the character of Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali – House of Cards) is fictionalised, it represents a real life relationship between white farmers and black slaves during the Civil War; signifying a turning point in the ‘abolishing’ of the slave trade. Furthermore, Newt is of course painted heavily as a heroic protagonist – possibly quite a biased representation in his favour and therefore a negative image of the State. We do, however, see Newt’s anger and horrendously violent measures he goes to in support of his case – thus providing a somewhat balanced representation overall.

Released in US cinemas in early September and having received mostly average reviews; it is arguable that Free State of Jones shines a harsh light on a shameful segment of US history that America would much rather forget – something Ross is famed for doing with the Civil Rights Movement in Pleasantville. Unlike Pleasantville, however, Ross does not allow the subject matter to become in anyway hidden behind symbolism or metaphors. Free State of Jones offers up a full frontal, gritty story, hell-bent on portraying historical truth – even if there are still many to this day who deny Newton Knight’s heroic status.

Equipped with all the tools for Oscar recognition, Free State of Jones is an incredibly moving, all-guns-blazing portrayal of a man who brought down the State. McConaughey delivers another stellar performance in this hugely political statement on America’s violent past with whom the values stand just as strong today.

Movie Review: Free State Of Jones
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Sophie is a film blogger from South London with a degree in Film Theory and Major Production. Sophie currently works in digital marketing but in her spare time you'll find her writing reviews or at the cinema. Sophie loves all things Star Wars and Hollywood but having specialized in the Horror genre, monsters are her first love. She'll watch absolutely anything given the chance - you can find her also on her blog, Twitter: