Monday, November 7, 2016

Film Review: Free State of Jones (2016)

The most interesting part of this film is its subject matter, not the filmmaking itself. Matthew McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a medical orderly in the Confederate Army who deserts after learning that a new law allows the sons of the richest slaveholders to be excused military service. Knight returns to his home in Jones County, Mississippi, where he's hunted by the local Confederate militia. After they burn down his home, Knight hides out in a swamp with some runaway slaves. This becomes the nucleus of a guerilla group that eventually numbers in the hundreds and battles the local Confederate forces. Knight and his men end up controlling a significant swath of Mississippi and declare the "free state of Jones", a land dedicated to the principle of egalitarianism for all men, no matter what their colour. The war ends and the Reconstruction period is followed by brutal suppression of black political activism by the KKK and plantation owners. Knight takes a black woman as his wife after the war, and a sub-plot set in the 1950s shows one of his male descendants, who is one-eighth black, fighting Jim Crow laws for the right to marry his white fiance.

The earnest, plodding, clunkiness of this biopic feels, at times, like a throwback to film styles and tropes from the '50s and '60s. 12 Years a Slave and Glory are set in the same era, but they told their stories with subtlety and cinematic flair without diminishing the messages they wanted to get across. Jones has no time for artistry. Dramatic and romantic elements are handled like assignments for a required university course, and the action sequences are staged like pageants. One battle set in a graveyard actually borders on the farcical.

By this point you might think I didn't like this film. Wrong. What sets it apart from a Glory or 12 Years a Slave is that it's eager and willing to tackle issues that don't normally get an airing in American films, specifically the subject of class warfare. At several points in the film it's explicitly stated that the Civil War was primarily about plantation owners, the plutocracy of the South, defending their capital interests with the lives of poor whites. Most films about this period in history might have ended with the conclusion of the war. Jones continues its study of class politics with the Reconstruction period, which, as far as I know, has never been dealt with in any film. The film makes it clear that the efforts of the KKK and their capitalist supporters were directed at denying blacks political power because that kind of power meant a tidal shift in the relationship between capital and labour. All those notions about white Southern notions of "honour" and ''tradition" and fear of black violence were just hogwash. Whites were only interested in instituting a system of legal peonage to replace slavery. In this way Jones emerges as a superior film to Glory and 12 Years a Slave because the latter two films are dealing in honorable platitudes: racism are slavery were bad. This film brings something new to the discussion by showing how racism is so often a screen behind which politicians and capitalists practice their black arts.

Free State of Jones is a flawed film from a purely cinematic point of view, but as an examination of an often poorly understood part of American history it really has no equal. And lest you think that this subject matter isn't worth re-examining in this day and age, check out the interview below with legendary film director William Friedkin. From the 6:23 mark onwards Friedkin defends the birth of the KKK. It's jaw-dropping stuff, and this from someone who's from the allegedly liberal bastion of Hollywood.


Lumpy Lang said...

Great review JC! You're so right about Hollywood's studied neglect of Radical Reconstruction and how it was betrayed by the alliance of the defeated slave-owners and Northern capitalists. (Noteworthy also that the pseudo-leftist 'identity politics' crowd absolutely hated this film.)
Finish the Civil War!

Lumpy Lang said...

BTW many happy returns ;-)