STX Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten, Shockya
Grade: C+
Director:  Gary Ross
Written by: Gary Ross
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Keri Russell, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Jacob Lofland, Sean Bridgers
Screened at: AMC Empire, NYC, 6/22/16
Opens: June 24, 2016

Schoolchildren taking U.S. History should know that the United States did not arise out of nowhere but that the country is a product of the original 13 colonies that moved doggedly and steadily westward.  Students should be aware that Texas and California, for example, were once independent states, but until now, who knew that the Free State of Jones (County in Mississipi) once raised its own flag in defiance of the government and most people of that state?  This could be the subject of a movie, one that’s exciting, to the point, and filled with battles and glorious speeches.  Instead, Gary Ross’s drama is lacking in color and grandeur, though the chief weakness is its length of two hours and nineteen minutes.  There’s a limit to how much we audience members should have to listen to Matthew McConaughey’s drawl and watch his scruffy beard, though the handsome actor who drives a Lincoln nowadays rather than a horse is probably the man for this job as well.

Though the aforementioned schoolchildren have heard of John Brown and know that his body lies a-mouldering in the grave, probably none had heard of Newton Knight, a real character on whom this film is based, and whose heroism as a farmer who became a deserter (for good reasons) emerges when he becomes a freedom fighter.  At least that’s probably the opinion of us in New York, but Mississippi may still consider him a terrorist.

Can you imagine a movie about John Brown, the abolitionist hero who put his life on the line to free the slaves, that is unable to motivate the audience to give a rousing, standing ovation?  That’s about what’s going on here.  The plot moves forward in spurts like a taxi going crosstown in Manhattan.  We should be entitled to more battle scenes, more gory action, more of what made “12 Years a Slave” a solid picture with a steadily rising plot that spurs audience emotions and urges us to detest the reactionary Southern whites who would beat and rape and hang African-Americans at will.

The story begins in 1862, near the mid-point of the War Between the States, focusing on Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) as a nurse, a saintly one who carry a wounded young man (Jacob Lofland) out of a combat zone and appears ready to break down in tears when he dies.  Soon, like a modern-day left-leaning Democrat, he becomes incensed at the inequality he sees as his own Confederate government exempts from service any man who owns twenty slaves, and for each twenty beyond that, more in the family can stay home.  As if that abstraction is not enough, he witnesses the looting that his fellow Confederates commit, stripping farms of everything that’s not nailed down.  He challenges the looters, who back off, then deserts, but goes further than Benedict Arnold did during the American Revolution when that traitor defected to the British.  Newton Knight did not defect to the Union Army but took arms against other Southern soldiers together with a small army of both white radicals and enslaved African-Americans.

Here McConaughey is as saintly a person as the actor was in “Dallas Buyers Club,” when he shed fifty pounds to become Ron Woodroof, intent on finding alternative treatments for AIDS.  He even attracted some women for his army of one hundred, women who surprised soldiers who had looted their lands by shooting them point blank.  Handsome Knight is a lover as well as a fighter.  He teaches enslaved Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) to read and fight, the two of them creating a child and leading the film to lurch forward eighty-five years, when the state of Mississippi imprisons a descendant  whom it declared to be one-eighth “Negro,” demanding that he annul his marriage to a white woman.  (Knight in truth had fourteen children; five with his wife Serena (Keri Russell), the rest with Rachel as common-law partner.

Why do poor young men go to war when they seem to have the least to gain from a victory?  That’s the eternal question, posed when college students in the seventies managed to stay out of Vietnam, a point raised by the inequalities depicted in “Free State of Jones,” but the movie simply lacks energy and sufficient humor.  It might as well have dressed the good guys in white suits—that’s how impossibly saintly they are.

Rated R.  139 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B-
Acting – C+
Technical – C+
Overall – C+


By Harvey Karten

Harvey Karten is the founder of the The New York Film Critics Online (NYFCO) an organization composed of Internet film critics based in New York City. The group meets once a year, in December, for voting on its annual NYFCO Awards.

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