Free State of Jones thrives in the perennial notion of love in the face of adversity, a rather popular theme in cinema at present and rightly so. Spawning fellow endeavours Loving and A United Kingdom in depicting the love between a white person and a black person, and the subsequent backlash from disgraceful naysayers. A trio of films spreading an essential (and somewhat pertinent) message in the current climate – which is that if two people love each other, why should anyone give a damn what colour their skin is?
Alas, and across the course of history, people have done – and Gary Ross’s production tells the true story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a defiant farmer who begins a rebellion against the Confederacy during the Civil War. In a relationship with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and forming a close allegiance with a collection of fellow disillusioned farmers and runaway slaves – in particular the hapless father Moses (Mahershala Ali) – Knight inspires an uprising amongst the underdogs in society, standing up against a seemingly formidable force.
Though a remarkable story that lends itself so well to a silver screen retelling, Ross’s clumsy direction makes for a film unsure of its focus. We cover far too much ground, over too many years and with a myriad of themes to explore, frustratingly non-linear, unable to strike a compatible balance. The opening act is too long, and as a film that surpasses two hours (and then some), you do question the need to start this narrative at such an early stage, as a better filmmaker would be able to still contextualise the story, and evoke the same amount of emotion using a smaller, more specific period of time. Thankfully McConaughey is terrific in any era, and throughout this picture he remains the one constant, beguiling and compelling, with a degree of humility and nobility the character requires to prevent this tale becoming a congratulatory “compassionate white dude saves the day” story, which it threatens to become on several occasions. There’s also a striking supporting turn for Ali, one of the most consistent, underrated actors working today.
But given the subject matter, the casting, and just the entire presentation of this epic biopic, Free State of Jones is evidently a film that had hoped for awards recognition, which it has, and will be, without. For while certainly an accomplished piece of cinema, it simply hasn’t got that spark required to transcend this mediocre production into anything truly special.