“Free State of Jones”

A Civil War saga steeped in politics taps the real life story of a Confederate Army nurse. Newt Knight is that  soon -to -desert -soldier/nurse and his story has been told before in  the 1948 film “Tap Roots”. Van Heflin and Susan Hayward starred. Boris Karloff and Julie London were in the cast. Directed by George Marshall it was based very loosely on Newton Knight, a daring rebel for some, a runaway for others. The film lost money, let’s hope the 2016 film based on the 1942 novel by James H. Street fares better because it is a story that needs to be known.

The romantic rebel who may stand as one of the last Great American men shows not just dissent in the Confederacy, but higher ideals of equality and self-sufficiency. A Southern Anti-Slavery Unionist who held up in the  Tulahoma Swamps of Mississippi in Jones County, Knight had as many as 600 followers who believed the Galatians’ tenet that ” what you sow, you reap.” When army mauraders confiscated fields, produce and livestock, Knight’s cohorts rebelled.

They declared their own country when  the Union General  Wm. Tecumseh Sherman questioned whether this band of southeastern Mississippi deserters comprised  a  true  military company. Citing four tenets: 1. No man stays poor so another can be rich 2. No man can tell you what to die for. 3. Every man is a  free man. 4. Every man reaps what they sow, the Free State of Jones 1862-1876 survived as a racially mixed community.

The film should, but may not survive the weekend. At two hours and nineteen minutes, it is  ponderously long. The pace slows down and speeds up for no artful reason. The editing is a mess. Holes in the storyline scream to be filled. Yet, the acting is good and the impulse to celebrate these ideals holds sway. Viewers learn a lot and many, like me, will crave to learn more. Not a bad reason to see a historical film. The 2009  publication of the book, “The State of Jones”  by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer may be another.

The  film’s images are some of the most gruesome seen. Grey – clad marching troops stare ahead. Left, right, left cadences are heard; legs step over fallen bodies into direct cannon fire. Faces are blasted away, bursts of powder haze the sky. Pigs eat a fallen lad’s guts, pallets of blood and  soaked bandages are foreground to saws and sinews.

Laws favor the privileged. If you owned twenty Negroes, you were free from conscription. One wealthy family member is exempt from service for every forty slaves owned. The Civil War is seen as a fight over cotton more than honor. Newt ( Matthew McConaughey) tries to bring his newly conscripted and scared, fourteen year-old nephew  to safety in one of the more harrowing scenes. Moonlight and mule carry the boy’s body in a muslin shroud back to his mother.

Women, babies, and rockers by the fire illustrate cabin life. The photography of Benoit Delhomme is lovely and authentic in feel. The near death of the Knight’s baby boy sends Newt’s wife Serena  ( Kerri Russell) leaving him for more serene climes. She returns five years later to find Newt in a common law marriage with the Creole who helped  initially break his son’s fever. Guru Mbatha- Raw plays Rachel, and she is secure enough in Newt’s love to accept Serena and the boy’s return.  They  all coexist together, and Rachel and Newt have their own son.

“You can not own a child of God” rings as an anti-slavery sound byte. The 1864 Ellisville  standoff and the  1940 tale of Newt’s  great-grandson get lost in the telling. Too many historical consultants or too much information send the movie into a tailspin. This is a shame because the acting is good.  Mahershala Ali brings Moses Washington to life and his hanging is symbolic of many. We learn of dissent in the Confederacy. We learn of interracial strictures in the 19th century.  The  script is just too much ; the story too unevenly paced to celebrate director and writer Gary Ross. Yet, without this film many would not learn of this Southern Unionist who supported the Republican Party of Lincoln.