When he was workshopping the script that would become Birth of a Nation, about the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner, director/writer/star Nate Parker was warned that Turner, who killed white slaveowners, was too controversial a subject for a film. Undeterred, Parker raised enough money to make a biopic of his hero, which debuted earlier this year at Sundance and was acquired by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. It is a powerful, important film that honors Turner’s legacy as one willing to stand up against injustice.
Free State of Jones, another film about a man who leads a rebellion against the South, takes another approach: It’s a Civil War movie that never talks about race.
Oh, it sort of does. Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a poor farmer conscripted into service as a medic by the Confederate army. Appalled by the death around him—and how the losses of the war, both in terms of lives and property seized for the war effort, is borne mostly by the poor, while the rich slaveowners sit pretty in their plantations—Newton defects. Eventually, he joins up with a group of runaway slaves living in a swamp, where they’re unreachable by the horse-bound soldiers and slave-catchers hunting them down. Also in the mix is Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave at a nearby plantation who periodically visits the swamp to provide assistance and necessary items from the outside. Eventually, this small community balloons into the titular “Free State of Jones,” a self-proclaimed nation made up of poor farmers and runaways.
This is an interesting story, and a true one.
Unfortunately, the way it’s presented in Free State of Jones is also appallingly racist. And boring. Let’s not forget boring.
The Free State of Jones goes out of its way to avoid having its main character condemn slavery, or even to acknowledge institutional racism as an inciting factor in the Civil War. Instead, we are told, the American South’s injustice springs from the way it discriminates based on class. Knight left the Confederate army, he half-jokes, because it’s not like he, as a poor man, had any slaves to fight to keep. Is the Confederacy bad because slavery is an inherent moral evil? Naaaah—it’s because Big Government takes our crops and hogs for the war effort. When one of Knight’s former war buddies refers to one of the escaped slaves as a “n***er,” Knight objects, not because of the racism, but because “How you [the white man] ain’t a n***er?… Slaves picked cotton for ‘em, you killed for ‘em.” I could do without hearing Matthew McConaughey use the n-word as some sort of warped team-building exercise for, oh, the rest of my life.
Poor white farmers and black slaves, Knight repeatedly lectures his followers, We all suffer injustices! We all have it bad!
Yeah, but some of us have it just a little worse than others, you self-absorbed asshole, says one of the former slaves. I assume director Gary Ross cut away just before that.
The Free State of Jones is a tale of a white man co-opting a primarily black struggle. And yet the black characters are almost completely sidelined. Black characters do suffer here on the basis of their race, and more than the white characters do—it’s impossible to avoid the basic historical facts of what life for black people was like both during and shortly after the Civil War. But when the movie shows that suffering, it’s as a precondition for White Savior Matthew McConaughey to do something heroic.
A few examples: Rachel, we know, is a slave. One day, she confesses to Knight that her master regularly rapes her; the last time he attempted it, she struggled and was beaten. In retaliation, Knight burns down the master’s crops. But what seemingly has never occurred to Knight, or the movie itself, is that Rachel has been a slave the entire time she’s been visiting Knight in the swamp, and Mr. Motherfucking Freedom Fighter never took issue with it.
One of the men Knight meets in the swamp, Moses (Mahershala Ali, giving a powerful performance despite shitty material), has a spiked collar around his neck that prevents him from laying down comfortably. Hey, says Knight, I used to be a blacksmith. I can get that off you if you want.
That’d be great, Moses (in my head) responds. It would have been even greater if you hadn’t waited to drop that information until after we’d known each other for days. But thanks, I guess.
Later, when bad things happen to Moses’ family, Knight is the one to step in and save the day, Moses himself sitting silently beside him, a loyal lieutenant. He briefly takes a more active role in the story, [SPOILERS] registering black men to vote after the passage of the 15th Amendment. In return, he is raped and lynched. Knight delivers a stirring eulogy and—I shit you not—leads a literal parade of black men down the street and successfully argues down a corrupt government official who tries to stop them from voting. Pretty sure not a single black person utters a word during that scene.
Gary Ross, who wrote Free State of Jones’ script in addition to directing it, didn’t intend to make something so mind-bogglingly tone-deaf, the same way someone who jokes that a black person would only like “black” movies doesn’t intend to be racist. The result is the same. (Incidentally, Ross and Leonard Hartman, who has a story credit, are both white. But I think you guessed that.)
The disconnect between the story Ross thinks he’s telling (hero standing up against injustice) vs the one he’s actually telling (callous, narcissistic monster) goes beyond race. One of the movie’s most head-scratching moments has to do with Knight’s wife Serena (Keri Russell) and their young son, whom he unwillingly abandons when he’s forced to go on the run following his desertion. I say “unwillingly,” but… he doesn’t seem to even remember they exist until they pop up again about a half-hour before the film ends. Oh, that’s right, I had a son. By that time, he’s also struck up a relationship with Rachel. Serena and the son move in with them. No one seems to think this is awkward.
“Inept” is the word of the day for this one. It’s long and boring: Two hours and 19 minutes, folks, and you feel every second of it. Repeated use of archive photos paired with intertitles make Free State of Jones feel more like a particularly dry history lesson than anything even vaguely cinematic. I felt like I was about to crawl out of my skin when there was still an hour left.
And that’s not even getting into Free State of Jones’s weirdest sin: That it intermittently cuts away to an “85 years later” flashforward detailing an anti-miscegenation court case brought against one of Knight’s descendants. Yes. It did that. No. I don’t know why. It’s based on something that really happened, but it cuts narrative momentum to a standstill and adds nothing of substance. This movie should have lost 45 or so minutes, and this 15 should have been among them.
To sum up: I’ve never walked out of a movie in my life (and I saw City of Angels in theatres!), but if I weren’t reviewing this I would have been out. Save yourself, and wait for Birth of a Nation. It’s going to bury this turdpile, and I will laaaaugh and laugh.