Free State of Jones: film review

Free State of Jones, got rather mixed reviews when it was released. Having finally watched it I cannot really understand why that should be. Perhaps, paradoxically, because it is a serious movie which tells an important story that eschews many of the normal Hollywood cliches?

The movie focuses on a little known aspect of the American Civil War in which a guerrilla army of former slaves and deserters, drove the Confederacy out of a portion of Mississippi. Matthew McConaughey plays the guerrilla leader, Newton Knight, a Confederate deserter disgusted by the pointless brutality of the civil war who decides he is no longer going to fight for a system that he does not believe in. What begins initially as a flight from the authorities in which he finds refuge with a small group of runaway slaves slowly grows into a rebellion against the brutal and corrupt Confederacy as Knight begins to transform his small group of fugitives into an increasingly potent army.

The climax of their military campaign, as depicted in the film, was the capture of the town of Ellisville, after which they haul down the flag of the racist Confederacy that is flying over the Jones County courthouse, and raise the Stars and Stripes instead. That’s the bit that made me cry. I found it a particularly poignant moment given the intent of so many of Donald Trump’s acolytes to figuratively and literally replace the US flag with the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy instead.

One would normally expect the movie to end there on that triumphant note. But it does not. Instead it follows the characters through the post Civil War betrayals of their dreams of justice, and the resurgence, through Ku Klux Klan terrorism and federal government failures, of the systems of segregation which replaced the systems of slavery.

It might be the most honest movie yet about the Civil War and its aftermath. In short it is a sombre and downbeat movie about the betrayal of brave patriots who deserved much better from those they fought for.

But for all that the movie is not without hope: the love and friendship between the central characters played with great subtlety and conviction by McConaughey, the always sublime Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali and Keri Russell, is something, the film asserts, that the world will finally recognise as shaming the the corrupt and the racist.

It is a fine movie that deserves to be recognised as an important one and seen by many more people. Whether that happens or not it will remain a rich credit to everyone involved in its making.

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