This week I was sent by Grace Hill Media to an advanced screening of Free State of Jones starring Matthew McConaughey and written and directed by Gary Ross
Free State of Jones tells the true story (with some Hollywood embellishments) of Newton Knight (McConaughey), a Mississippi farmer who, during the Civil War, deserted from the Confederate army and led a rebellion against them. It’s a fascinating story - especially since I was raised in the South and can trace many of my ancestors to the Confederate army (and a few to the Union - we were a family divided). The movie prompted me to do my own research into Newt Knight, his story and his legacy.
I love pockets of history. The wide, sweeping stories of huge battles and the politics that cause them don’t really catch my attention and usually leave me empty. But tell me the story of one person and how history affected them and their family - and continues to affect their descendants - and I’m all in. The Smithsonian.com has a very interesting article on Knight’s story as seen in Mississippi during present day. It will come as no surprise to any person who keeps up with current events that racism is alive and well today - especially in the deep South. Jones County is still deeply divided in its opinions of Knight, his life and his beliefs.
As for the film depicting the man in question, be warned - it is a rough. The opening scene is incredibly hard to watch. I would compare it to Saving Private Ryan’s D-Day opening - it just drops you in the middle of horrifying battle and doesn’t pull any punches. You see faces blown off, you see limbs ending in stumps, you hear weak moans and anguished screams. You can almost smell the gunpower, the blood and the filth. The brutality never stops happening to the people of Jones County, but director Gary Ross starts to pull back in exactly what he shows of any of the subsequent instances of violence - often leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks themselves, showing just enough to inform, but not enough to make you leave the theater. (This is MILES away from Quentin Tarantino who may have single handedly kept the fake blood industry in business with Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight!)
The cast is superb and, under Ross’ direction, communicates many layers of their story through their silences. I was especially touched by Rachel's (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) reaction to being offered her own bedroom with a feather bed.
Technically, the film was outstanding. Stand back and let the Oscar race begin because the art direction, the costumes and the make-up were fantastic. I could feel the stickiness of the swamp, not only through the cinematography, but through the grime on the men’s faces, the oiliness of their hair, the way their shirts hung and sometimes stuck to them. Of course, they did film in Louisiana, so they had a lot to work with anyway, but all the artists worked together to really convey the actual FEEL of the swamp.
I highly recommend this film. However, this film is disturbing. It's disturbing because it is true. There are fictionalized elements (in my research, I found that Moses - played with great depth by Mahershala Ali - was not a real person, but an amalgam of different people from that time), but all of the brutality is is real. Those things happened to real people of flesh and blood. And they were perpetrated by other real people of flesh and blood. And the sentiments behind those actions are still alive and well today. Knowing that makes my stomach turn and my blood boil. But knowing that also makes me want to ensure that things like that don't happen again. And that is why people should see it.
(On a side note, my husband is from Michigan - a Yankee! He said that he had no idea some of the things this film shows about the post-war South went on. That surprised me. He's well read and loves history, but there's a lot that we as a nation have buried. Yet another reason that this film is important.)