In his movie “Free State of Jones,” writer-director Gary Ross takes a deep dive into the convoluted, controversial and often contradictory Civil War and Reconstruction history of Jones County, Mississippi. It was in this county of dirt farms and impenetrable swamps that a tough and ornery poor white farmer named Newton Knight did the unthinkable by leading an extraordinary rebellion against the Confederacy.
In the spring of 1864, the so-called Knight Company overthrew the Confederate authorities in the county and raised the United States flag over the county courthouse in Ellisville, calling it the Free State of Jones.
Ross has been researching this story even before he made the first “Hunger Games” installment four years ago. He now has a web site that guides one through the film offering scene-by-scene annotations as to source materials, areas of historical fact and those of fictional invention.
The rigors of pulling such a story from out of the fog of history and myth to get as much right as possible often overwhelms the laws of Hollywood epic moviemaking. So the result is an uneven though fascinating little-known tale about Unionism in the most deeply Southern state of all.
Stoutly defending these movie laws, I see many of our by-the-book film critics are fussing about having to endure a history lesson instead of rousing Civil War fiction. They no doubt prefer “Gone With the Wind.”
But if nothing else, “Lincoln,” “12 Years a Slave” and the forthcoming “Birth of a Nation” (set for release Oct. 7) have prepared the way for more honest film reflections of that dark period in our nation’s history, a tragedy that in many ways continues today.
Ross (who wrote the story with Leonard Hartman) could have made things easier on himself — and his audience — by focusing simply on the rebellion itself and ignoring the Reconstruction era when blacks could briefly vote only to be disenfranchised and terrorized by the Klan.
Ross even brings in a court case 85 years later where Newt’s great-grandson was charged with violating that state’s miscegenation laws by marrying a white woman. After the war, Knight, separated though never divorced from his wife Serena, married Rachel, a woman formerly enslaved by his grandfather, thus spawning an interracial community near the small town of Soso that continued to marry within itself.
While that 1948 trial underscores the Mississippian obsession with racial purity, it fits awkwardly into the framework of a mostly 19th-century tale. Nevertheless, it does pertain thematically and I think it’s a bold move to include the sorry episode even if it does seem like a digression.
So, yes, you can see a much more satisfying fictional story about the Civil War such as Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” which is pure revisionist bullshit, of course. But you’ll understand a good deal more about the reality of that war and its aftermath with a film like “Free State of Jones.”
A scruffy and bearded Matthew McConaughey plays Newt within Ross’ conviction that his hero was a latter-day Robin Hood. Hiding out in a swamp with Confederate deserters such as himself and runaway slaves, Newt wages guerrilla war against Reb tax collectors who take what they want to pay for a war that more and more looks like a rich man’s war being fought by poor men.
While historians and accounts differ on this heroic interpretation — certain white historians seem more likely to forgive Newt’s rebellion than his interracial common-law marriage — McConaughey makes him a convincing man of principle, building within his own mind, as the movie progresses, not only a moral conviction against slavery but a real empathy with African Americans.
In the parlance of today, you see him “radicalized.”
As Newt sees it, the slaveholder demands that blacks pick his cotton for no financial recompense while demanding that poor whites lay down their lives in the war designed to protect this economic system. This means runaway slaves and poor whites have the same enemy.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw plays Rachel, bringing dignity and strength to the role of a black woman who aides the guerrilla forces. Ross’ biggest error, though, is not providing more emotional backbone to the Newt-Rachel union. There is never a scene that depicts the evolution of their feelings for one another.
Similarly, Keri Russell as Newt’s first wife Serena gets shunted aside far too much for her to register significantly in what amounts to the ultimate love triangle. For Newt appears to have kept each woman and her offspring in separate dwellings on his farm.
Mahershala Ali plays a fictional character, a slave leader who is first introduced having escaped with a horrifying iron collar with upward-pointing spears around his neck courtesy of his slave master. He is the man to build racial bridges and after the war recruit black voters in the county, an activity that makes him a Klan target.
The movie presents a crowded tapestry not only among the collective of deserters, slaves and their women folk but Confederate officers, tax collectors and later the Republican Reconstruction government, its white resistance and other judges and officials that eventually impose vicious segregation.
The war sequences that begin the film superbly portray the sheer slaughter and stupefying fear that rule an inhuman battlefield and filthy surgical tents. The sequences back home with an army waging its own peculiar war against its own populace hit you with the full force of the injustices practiced by the white elite.
Yet this is not a stirring or triumphant story, making it all the easier for critics to dismiss it. Still, this may be one of the most honest American films about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction ever made.
The movie unfolds thematically more than dramatically (not that there isn’t plenty of juicy drama), intent on conveying truths about the legacy of one man’s resistance to tyranny. It also does a good job of balancing this legacy with the factual records of interracial sexuality in the 19th-century South.
So “Free State of Jones” is a history lesson but one with all the blood, tears, heartache, heroism and betrayals of the greatest of stories. It’s wobbly and didactic at times but determined not to let fictional romanticism triumph over factual drama.
Opens: June 24, 2016 (STX Entertainment)
Production: Bluegrass Films, Rahway Road, Larger Than Life Productions
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Christopher Berry, Sean Bridgers, Jacob Lofland, Thomas Francis Murphy, Bill Tangradi,, Brian Lee Franklin, Kerry Cahill, Joe Chrest, Jessica Collins, Donald Watkin, Jill Jane Clements
Director/screenwriter: Gary Ross
Story by: Leonard Hartman, Gary Ross
Producers: Scott Stuber, Jon Kilik, Gary Ross
Executive producers: Robin Bissell, Leonard Feder, Leonard Hartman, Bruce Nachbar, T.G. Herrington, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei, Jerry Ye, Donald Tang, Stuart Ford, Matt Jackson, Russell Levine, Lee Jea Woo, Chris Lytton, Robert Simonds, Adam Fodelson, Oren Aviv, Christopher Woodrow, Michael Bassick
Director of photography: Benoit Delhomme
Production designer: Philip Messina
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Music: Nicholas Britell
Editors: Juliette Welfling, Pamela Martin
R rating, 140 minutes