Release Date: June 24, 2016
Director: Gary Ross
Writer: Leonard Hartman (story), Gary Ross (written by)
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Ken Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins, Donald Watkins, Jill Jane Clements, Dane Rhodes, Lawrence Turner, Troy Hogan, Greg Kennedy, Artial Clark, Charlie Anderson, Cade Mansfield Cooksey, Liza J. Bennett, David Jensen, Bill Martin Williams, Jim Kelly, John P. Fertitta, Rhonda Johnson Dents
MPAA Rating: R
Runtime: 139 minutes
Production Company: Bluegrass Films, Huayi Brothers Media, Larger Than Life Productions, Route One Entertainment, Vendian Entertainment, STX Entertainment
Genre: Action, Biography, Drama
It goes without saying that the American Civil War was an extremely dark time in United States history. For years gruesome barbaric events flooded multiple states for all, especially those of color. There’s a number of heroic tales that can be told during this time of mayhem. Wherever you threw a rock it would land in a place that had an unwelcoming presence of pain and torture. So to pick The Free State of Jones out of the bunch as a necessary story to tell must have been compelling. To me that’s what a true story worthy of a Hollywood production would entail. A story worth mentioning that will remind the people where they came from, as a lightning rod of truth to never go back to. Did Free State of Jones have this? Not at all. It’s just another history lesson surrounded by a man, and his so-called inconveniences, while being compared to slavery which ridiculously embarrassing.
Taking a glance at his past credits, I’d say I’m fond of director Gary Ross’ (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, and The Hunger Games) previous work. He has a unique way of making you care about the characters. So with Free State of Jones I did care initially. With Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) becoming a rebel against the confederate army, why wouldn’t I be on his side? Whether he was against ignorant hateful racism, or the fact that he was fighting a war that wasn’t his fight, his reason for departing was respected. Though after a while of watching him carry out his quest, I was intrigued to see exactly why the story was focusing on him. Of course the audience found out later, and I was extremely disappointed with the outcome.
Before we jump to the end I did feel the film was entirely too long. The film was filled with important parts of history, but none that helped any of the characters development we’re trying to follow. It felt like an unnecessary history lessons with dramatic scenes never truly fulfilled themselves. Take Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who was caught by her master trying to learn, then intense music filled the air getting you to the edge of your seat, then the film cuts away to someone picking cotton. I want to know what happened next! There were too many instances where this happened with no pay off. At first things were great. A group of rebels getting stronger and stronger each day, but it never went anywhere. So after a while you’re just watching scenes back to back with no weight, and an occasional time stamp flashes on the screen, or in important mark in history we already knew that dilutes what came previously.
Besides the main protagonist Newton Knight there were a few other characters to make note of like Moses (Mahershal Ali). For the little amount he was present he did provide a memorable presence. Though everything good or bad that happened to him didn’t connect with the overall story. He was there to pull on your heart strings, but it’s a failed attempt. He’s a main character who you didn’t get to know, but are being tricked to think you are. He has a mission, a family, and more than one reason to live. He been abused every day in his life, and we’re told, “He has every reason to be filled with hate,” but he’s never hateful. While being a great character trait, this information isn’t conveyed by his own action or words, but by another cast member to create sympathy. Again, it doesn’t work. Comparing his demise or trying to use that to make the audience feel bad about the grandchild of Newton Knight is ridiculous.
That’s my biggest complaint of the entire film, and erases all the great performances and lovely shots the film had to offer towards the beginning. It started out great making you feel this would be another great Civil War epic with great action, dialogue, and performances. It’s not in the slightest, but easily could’ve been. The fact that the film is so long, cherry picks its brutality, continuously halts on a flowing story to tell history lessons, and then to have main crux of the film fall on a white man’s misfortune because he can’t marry who he loves b/c of the race of his grandmother is sad. Comparing that shortcoming to slavery is embarrassing and offensive.