Free State of Jones may, for many people, be the first Civil War drama they've seen that tells an anti-Confederate story from the viewpoint of a white Southerner — a valuable perspective that in itself makes the movie worth seeing. It’s based on the forgotten and fascinating true story of Newton Knight — played here like a Southern Robin Hood by Matthew McConaughey, his movie-star sheen scuffed up with a big, bushy beard and historically accurate teeth — a farmer and Confederate army medic. Disillusioned by war and the Confederate army looting his neighbors' farms, he deserts and forges a rebel coalition of escaped slaves and poor whites tired of fighting a "rich man's war" for them. (Why die in the name of slavery when you don't own any slaves?) Their camp, deep in the Mississippi bayou, is an idyllic enclave of freedom and peace amidst the carnage of war and enslavement that eventually becomes a threat to the Confederacy as its ranks grow, emerging from the swamp to claim towns for its self-declared nation-state.
Essentially, it’s a messy movie about an even messier stretch of ugly American history that would’ve fared better as a prestige miniseries. And even two hours and 19 minutes isn’t enough to cover the sprawling ground it wants to: slavery, racism, class wars in the South, emancipation, apprenticeship laws, Reconstruction, Antebellum, interracial relationships, Black voting rights, 20th-century miscegenation laws, the KKK, and more. There are four or five great movies wrestling for the focus in Free State of Jones, stories seeded but not given any room to grow.
The one narrative this film is crystal-clear on? Newton Knight is a goddamn saint. Yes, Free State of Jones has an aggressive and disappointing white-hero complex. This is partly because Knight is indeed, in many ways, a heroic man who is also white. But mostly, it's because the screenplay was carefully crafted that way. As Owen Gleiberman puts it, "It’s a tale of racial liberation and heroic bloodshed that is designed, at almost every turn, to lift us up to that special place where we can all feel moved by what good liberals we are." And a quick Google search reveals that unflattering personal details about Knight are conveniently omitted so that he can be the unequivocal hero the film so desperately wants him to be.
If, like me, you're not a stickler about historical discrepancies, then consider this shamelessly literal depiction of our white savior liberating the Black man: In one scene, Knight literally frees a runaway slave named Moses (House of Cards's Mahershala Ali) by breaking the iron contraption shackled around his neck. Moses, by the way, is a riveting character, but he's just an accessory to Knight — as is Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the runaway house slave whom Knight teaches to read and sweeps off her feet. And in service of their idyllic romance, the fact that Rachel has regularly been raped by her master doesn't seem to be an issue when it comes to intimacy with a white man — a bizarre omission that makes the viewer uncomfortable. She's also contented to live alongside Knight's first wife (Keri Russell) — another female character shunted by the movie. The film spends more time on the villainous Confederate general than exploring the lives of these two strong women.
But it's not until the jarring scene where Knight co-opts the N-word that Free State Of Jones crosses the line. Knight is addressing a (mostly white) crowd of poor Southerners he is enlisting to rebel against the Confederacy. He is trying to rile them up with populist rage at the wealthy plantation owners who are living well while the poor are robbed in their homes and killed on the battlefield in the name of an institution (slavery) they don't benefit from. “Everybody is just somebody else’s nigger," Knight says.
That statement is what you'd call problematic — and no, not because its wording violates our 21st-century standards of political correctness. The fact is, poor white men are not "n-----s." They never have been, and they never will be. Back then and today, poor white people may be disenfranchised and treated like shit by white people with more money and power than them. But they have never been and will never be hated or beaten or denied their freedom for the color of their skin. They have never been and will never be raped or sold or lynched because they are Black. To conflate poverty with slavery and classism with racism is disturbing and dangerous. It's a denial of Black people's truth, then and now. And I was half-expecting for one of the Black men or women to stop Knight right in the middle of his speech to tell him to shut the fuck up. But that never happened, because this movie is not about them.