Free State of Jones

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Starring Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey, Free State of Jones tells a truly fascinating overlooked true story of the American Civil War and Reconstruction in the South. McConaughey portrays Newton Knight, a larger-than-life figure who is still controversial to this day, who started a small uprising against the Confederacy in the rural Mississippi county of Jones. After enduring the bloody brutality of such battles as the Siege of Corinth in 1862, Knight deserted the Confederate Army and returned home to a dire situation. Many of the local poor white farmers were burdened with high taxes that deprived them of badly needed food supplies. Feeling targeted by the Confederacy and to escape prosecution, Knight hid in the swamp with escaped slaves and other deserters and eventually formed what would be known as the Knight Company. As the group grew with more disenfranchised farmers, they became surprisingly effective in repelling the Confederate authorities. However, General Sherman and the Union Army refused to help the group since they were perceived as simply a small group of bandits with no real power. The movie is unique in that it conveys an alternate message about the Confederate South: a thoroughly white Southerner like Knight has no qualms working with blacks and even fights for their rights during Reconstruction. Through the use of on-screen text giving historical context, the film gives an important historical lesson about the Civil War, its aftermath, and the suppression of black civil rights. The film’s only major drawback is that it tries to fit too much information into a relatively short amount of time. For instance, it almost randomly flashes forward 85 years to a trial when Knight’s descendant is questioned for committing the crime of interracial marriage. Such scenes help to tell the totality of racial discrimination in Mississippi. The movie would feel more coherent if it just focused on the Knight Company around the time of the Civil War. Matthew McConaughey gives an authentic performance as a gritty yet preacher-like rebel leader with a controversial personal life. Overall, I found the film intriguing for telling a noteworthy and powerful piece of history but whose storytelling could be more tightly woven.

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