but how do white men feel about racism?
So much worse, however, is Free State of Jones. You would think that all the stories there are to be told about black Americans during the Civil War — they had some small involvement, after all — had already been told; I guess that thrilling action drama about Harriet Tubman, Union spy and military leader, has been remade too many times to count, right? And so, desperate Hollywood — as embodied by screenwriter and director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games, Seabiscuit) — had no other choice but to finally get around to the true(ish) tale of Newton Knight, a deserting Confederate soldier who turned Robin Hood and guerrilla warrior against the rebels and set up his own self-proclaimed independent, Union-loyal (this may not have been true) state in Jones County, Mississippi.
Ross is so keen to be seen as historically accurate that he has created an entire web site of footnotes — FreeStateOfJones.info — to meticulously document the research that backs up his movie. As a resource on the time, it is superb. As justification for his film, it’s nothing of the sort. One major issue with Jones is not its historicity but the way it frames the story it wants to tell. Footnotes cannot excuse Ross’s depiction of Knight — portrayed physically ably, if not with any particular psychological insight, by Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar, The Wolf of Wall Street) — as the man who unites a group of runaway slaves who’ve been hiding out in a swamp; they’ve apparently just been hangin’ around doin’ nothing until the white man gives them a purpose. And there’s really no excuse for most of them to be undifferentiated furniture hovering in the background for most of the movie; their characters and personalities are meant to be wrapped up in one wholly fictional character, Moses (Mahershala Ali: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, The Place Beyond the Pines), a guessed-at composite of former slaves that Knight may have allied himself with.
Historical accuracy does not excuse Jones’s portrait of slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw [Concussion, Jupiter Ascending], wasted here), who would later become Knight’s second wife, though he never quite divorced his first one, Serena (Keri Russell: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Austenland). Rachel’s most dramatic scene entails her telling Knight about how she is continually raped by her owner, which then descends into her comforting Knight, he’s that upset to hear this. That’s right: the institutionalized rape of a woman by a man who is legally her owner matters most here for how it makes a man feel. That is absolutely disgusting, and absolutely emblematic of what happens when even stories about nonwhite and/or nonmale people get filtered through white men’s eyes.
Though Jones may have an even better — and by that, I mean, an even worse — example of the problems inherent in white men’s stories dominating pop culture. Among Jones’s many problems as a movie, on the basic level of engaging storytelling, is that it crams way too much into even its overlong two hours and 19 minutes runtime; after the war ends, it begins scanning the horrors of Reconstruction and the ways into which slavery was reintroduced in all but name (as with “apprenticeship” schemes); this is when the film really starts to feel like a lecture, or a bad parody of a Ken Burns documentary, rather than what is supposed to be primarily a narrative story. Jones tries to cover so much ground that it would be better served as a 10- or 20-episode miniseries (which would also give all the neglected, ie, non-Knight, characters room to breath and be people). The most bizarre tangent the movie goes off on is the occasional flashes forward to the 1948 trial, also in Mississippi, of a descendant of Knight, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin), who is accused of miscegenation, or race mixing, after marrying a white woman. Davis Knight looks — and had heretofore been treated — as a white man, but Mississippi law held that someone with even “one drop” of black blood, or even one black ancestor, no matter how far removed, was considered black. So Davis Knight’s trial is meant to determine whether he was the descendent of Newton and Serena or Newton and Rachel, and hence whether he should be considered “legally” white or “legally” black.
The Mississippi laws involved with this trial are utterly abhorrent, as are the attitudes about race on display, but once again, Jones puts all the focus on a man who is, for all intents and purposes, white, and who had, as far as we can determine, never been impacted by racism at all previously. If there’s one underlying unifying theme of Free State of Jones, it’s this: “How do white men feel about racism, and how does it affect them?” This is very low down on the list of concerns about racism, and quite possibly the least interesting sort of story to be told about racism. The only thing it’s “good” for is fueling and justifying white-savior narratives. And we’ve had more than enough of those already.