Saturday, June 25, 2016

On the Big Screen: FREE STATE OF JONES (2016)

Gary Ross's film presents Newton Knight as an American Robin Hood, a folk hero Americans should have known better. It leaves you wondering why his story and the legend of the Free State of Jones wasn't the stuff of Hollywood movies (George Marshall's 1948 film Tap Roots is based on a names-changed fictionalization of the story) or Wonderful World of Disney adventures, though the film itself, in its downbeat final act, hints at an answer. The Robin Hood tropes of the first half serve to set us up for the sucker-punch history lesson to come, creating a powerful effect of a dream destroyed. Like many a Robin Hood story, this one opens with the hero involved in a futile war. Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a hospital orderly in the Confederate army who grows increasingly disgruntled with the Cause. He resents a new law that allows soldiers who own 20 or more slaves to go home. Worse, a young relative is basically impressed into service and promptly gets killed despite Newton's efforts to protect him. Allowed to bring the boy's body home, Knight decides not to return. That makes him an outlaw already, but when he prevents the rebel home guard from confiscating a family's livestock Knight becomes a fugitive. His Sherwood Forest is a swamp occupied by runaway slaves, with Rachel, a local house slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) -- seemingly privileged but actually the master's sex slave -- his link to the outside world, while Newton becomes Rachel's link to the world of words and books. With Knight's wife (Keri Russell) forced to flee from Confederate reprisals, Rachel becomes Knight's lover. To mix metaphors, Mbatha-Raw is the hero's Rebecca to Russell's Rowena, but Ivanhoe itself is a Robin Hood story. As an increasingly desperate situation forces the Confederacy to grow more invasive and confiscatory -- the opposite in its intrusiveness to the idealized regime of enduring states-rights fantasies -- the swamp becomes a magnet for white deserters as Knight welds deserters and runaways into a guerrilla force that repeatedly thwarts the Sheriff -- I mean the home guard -- while remaining impregnable on their home ground. Knight's army eventually liberates five counties in Mississippi, initially offering themselves to the Union but finally declaring the Free State in response to General Sherman's indifference. Finally forced to retreat to the swamp by superior Rebel numbers, they remain undefeated at the end of the war and the liberation of the slaves.

As writer and director, Ross sees the Rebellion as the proverbial rich man's war and poor man's fight. Many in the North saw the Union cause in the same way, but the Confederacy as portrayed in Free State seems incomparably more predatory than the Lincoln administration that some see today as the precursor of Big Government. The predicament of poor whites in Mississippi seems to prove the point made by contemporary critics of the Slave Power, that its aggressive defense of privilege would ultimately subvert small-r republican government. Newton Knight becomes conscious of a Rebel exploitation of poor whites that is little different from the planters' exploitation of slaves. It's arguably worse, as Knight points out to one deserter reluctant to consort with blacks, because the planters don't order their slaves to get shot. Who, then, is the nigger? The most shocking, and probably most memorable line in the picture is Newton's assertion that everyone is someone else's nigger at some point. What seems implicit, given the story of the film, is that this is so so long as inequality persists, that the rich inevitably will make everyone their niggers if they need to. The extremity of war finally awakens the poor whites of Jones County to this truth and encourages collaboration, if not true fellow-feeling, with the ex-slaves. The tragedy of the story is that this glimmering of solidarity dies during Reconstruction, apparently because the poor whites no longer feel under the gun and no longer blame the planters for their plight. If anything the film understates this by making Knight's defeat by the Ku Klux Klan so nearly complete, when in fact he led a military force against the hooded terrorists. Knight himself remains a literal negro-lover to an extent that would seem too good to be true if history didn't confirm it.

Free State of Jones is a film that rewards patient viewing. It does something strange about a half hour into the picture, flashing forward to the late 1940s, when Newton Knight's great-grandson is tried for violating Mississippi's anti-miscegenation laws for marrying a white woman while his own blood is tainted with Rachel's. As the film returns repeatedly to this trial, which hinges on whether Rachel can be proven to have been the latter Knight's ancestor, its relevance to the main story remains questionable. Presumably the main story of Rachel and Newton Knight will prove whether Newton's descendant has Negro blood, but confirmation of this in the past can only be bad news for the 20th century Knight. The last half-hour of the picture explains why it's bad news. Newton Knight's defeat in the 1870s makes possible the persecution of his descendant three generations later. A textual assurance that Newton and Rachel personally had a happy ending -- the film goes so far as to suggest that Rachel and Newton's ex became friends -- does little to ameliorate a sense of disappointment that the filmmakers clearly and bravely want to instill in their audience after the exhilarating action of the Civil War section. In the end, after introducing us to a real-life folkloric hero, Free State indicts us as a nation for failing to live up to Newton Knight's heroism and idealism, thus condemning ourselves to another century of racial oppression. I don't know if the country wants to hear such a message this year, or whether this film will be denounced for political correctness, but we can definitely stand to hear that message, especially from a film that succeeds as either an action film or a history lesson.

Afterthought: That ego-trip of a poster doesn't help the film any. Make no mistake: McConaughey is great as Newton Knight, but the advertising ought to be selling Free State as an epic adventure, not spooking them with the specter of a wild-eyed fanatic for who knows what cause. If the picture doesn't get the grosses it deserves, you can partly blame that image that looks more like a wanted poster than a movie poster.

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