Free State of Jones has more than its fair share of problems. The film is a meandering mess. It’s shapeless. It almost goes out of its way to avoid conflict. Most of the movie is people just hanging out in a swamp. But perhaps its largest sin is that it’s willfully colorblind to racism, and positions colorblindness as an ultimate virtue rather than understanding that ignoring race is a luxury of white privilege. While it tries to position its central conflict as one of economics rather than race, it feels like an attempt to present a modern take on a historical divide.
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a Confederate soldier who becomes disenchanted with the cause after his nephew is killed in a battle. Newton sees that poor farmers like him are dying so that rich plantation owners can keep their slaves, so Newton deserts and runs off to hide in a swamp with runaway slaves. Eventually, he rallies more people to his cause and they all hide out in the swamp because the Confederate soldiers can’t take their horses into that environment. However, even after the Civil War ends, Newton sees that the battle is never truly over when it comes to race in the South.
The problem with having Newton as a protagonist is that his whiteness provides a shield, and the film never gets us to buy that he and his fellow poor white farmers are on the same level as runaway slaves. Furthermore, there’s no epiphany for Newton that he has and will always have it better off than his black friends. So when he gives a speech saying basically “We’re all niggers”, it rings hollow because no one will lynch Newton because he wants to vote or be free.
In this way, Free State of Jones is trying to ignore the construct of race and filter the story through a modern lens, specifically, a socioeconomic lens where poverty is the uniting force rather than race. But that’s a little insulting and more than a little naïve. Race is a powerful, albeit artificial, construct, and the film only pays it lip service because this is ultimately the story about a rebellious white man who was in some danger, but that was because of his actions rather than the color of his skin.
To the film’s credit, it at least makes Newton’s decision personal rather than ideological. He’s not an abolitionist, or at least not an outspoken one like John Brown. His decision to leave the war comes after personal loss, not after a discussion of how slave-owners can be exempt from military service. This creates a bit of selfishness and blindness to Newton, but the film never builds on it. McConaughey gives a sorrowful, commanding performance, but it needs more weakness and vulnerability to flesh out the character and his circumstances.
As it stands, Free State of Jones is a film that’s well-intentioned at best and uncomfortably ignorant at worst. While Newton Knight has a good story to tell, and his rebellion is impressive, the context for that rebellion is never fully fleshed out despite the wandering story that even time jumps 85 years into the future to let us know what’s up with Newton’s descendant (these 20th century scenes basically play as a chastisement of Mississippi). It’s not a good sign when you spend over two hours with a character and you’re still not sure afterwards if it was a story worth telling.