• Free State Of Jones

    Released by: Universal
    Released on: September 20, 2016
    Directed by: Gary Ross
    Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell, Brian Lee Franklin, Jacob Lofland, Brad Carter, Sean Bridgers, Kirk Bovil, Christopher Berry
    Year: 2016
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    The Movie:

    Based on the books The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest War by Victoria Bynum and The State of Jones by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer, Free State of Jones is a fictional account of the life of one Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a soldier and medic in the Confederate Army who hopes to return to his simple life of farming after the war ends. Growing increasingly disenchanted with what he sees, however, he deserts and flees home to be with his wife. There, he learns that soldiers all over the South are raiding farms and taking their food and necessities, leaving women and children to fend for themselves. He fights back but is bitten by a dog and flees into the swamp, where he is led to an encampment of runaway slaves. There he meets Moses Washington (Mahershala Ali), who soon becomes his right-hand man. As more and more soldiers defect from the army, Newton organizes the men as well as the runaway slaves who live in the swamp into an armed militia fighting the Confederacy. After taking and claiming part of Mississippi as their own, they rename it the Free State of Jones, where they fight off invading forces until the end of the war.

    After the war ends, Newton continues to fight for the rights of African American men, women, and children, including Moses’ son, who has been forced into an apprenticeship with a former slave owner. Newton also begins to build a family of his own with a former slave woman, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

    Free State of Jones is the latest in a long line of “white savior” films wherein a group of blacks are aided by a messianic white man. Despite this increasing and legitimately polarizing topic, it succeeds because it doesn’t pull its punches. Whereas most films dealing with the Civil War have a tendency to romanticize the South and demonize the North (think Gone With the Wind, 1939, for starters), Free State of Jones does anything but. It reveals the treacheries committed by the Confederate Army, particularly its treatment of the women and children of the South, and its desire to keep black people enslaved to white masters. There is no “slavery was an economic necessity” b.s. here.

    The direction is a little wonky at times (some transitions are represented by black and white photos from the period in which the film is set), but overall writer/producer/director Gary Ross gets it right. While his camera never flinches from the horrors of war and he mounts some fantastic and realistic battle sequences, his script’s primary focus is on its human protagonists. Many of the heroic characters are black, and all of the performances are good, particularly McConaughey’s and Mbatha-Raw’s. If there’s any problem with the film, it’s the story within a story: In the 1950s, a descendant of Knight’s is arrested for miscegenation because he is, legally speaking, one-eighth black (despite looking white); therefore, dating a white girl is a criminal act. He is sentenced to prison time, but his conviction is overturned by Mississippi’s Supreme Court, which fears that if the law is pressed into a higher court, it will be ruled unconstitutional by the same court that ruled in Brown v. Board of Education, which made state laws segregating black and white schoolchildren untenable. While this subplot could have made a terrific film, all it does here is serve to disrupt the principle story and action.


    Universal has released Free State of Jones on Blu-ray with an MPEG-4 AVC encode in 1080p high definition and in the film’s original theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. Given how long the film runs, Universal has wisely opted to place the film and its sole extra on a BD50 disc. The release also features the film in standard definition on DVD. Clearly the film was shot on digital video and them dumped onto film, though it retains a filmic quality for anyone who might be concerned otherwise. Colors are sharp, though the director has opted for sets and costumes that tend toward earthy colors (browns and grays in particular). When there are spots of color (the green among the trees and foliage is the most common), they are vivid. Flesh tends toward pale, suggesting some of the color was slightly drained from some scenes or shots (probably for stylistic reasons), while detail is super-sharp. This is one of those films that mostly takes place out of doors in the deep South, so there’s a lot for a good transfer to latch onto. Foliage is everywhere, but detail doesn’t end there. As one would expect, faces are revealing, with lines and creases and even peach fuss appearing in close and medium shots. Clothing, buildings, and furnishings also fare well. Where the quality dips slightly and the noise level increases is during nighttime sequences. These still look good, just not as good as the daylit or exterior sequences. Shadow detail is also lacking during these darker scenes. For the most part, grain is well resolved except in the instances mentioned above. As for the DVD, it is, of course, a step down from the BD but still manages to look quite good.

    Universal has opted for a single track to contain the film’s sound: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. As one would expect for a film of recent production, it is excellent, with terrific dispersal between the various speakers. There are many distinctive sounds that make the listening experience a more involving, immersive one, from gun and cannon fire to people marching and shouting. With the right surround system in place, some viewers will feel the base of the battle and almost believe that they’re in the midst of it all!

    Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired are included, as are subtitles in French and Spanish, a smart move given the size of both foreign-language markets in North America.

    There is one extra, and it’s well worth watching: “The History of Jones County,” which is also presented in 1080p high definition (and looks it). It runs approximately 18 minutes and tells the true tale behind the film, with a number of knowledgeable and interesting participants, including Jones County resident Joseph Hosey, Knight descendant Kensley Keys, Jones Country historian and descendant Jim Kelly, author Victoria Bynum, Jones County Junior College History Professor Wyatt Moulds, Knight descendant Dorothy Knight Marsh, Jones County resident Pine Purvis, Knight descendant Florence Blalock, Knight descendant Eunice Smith, director Ross, and actor McConaughey. One of the first things the featurette does is dispel the notion that the Civil War wasn’t a fight over slavery; it most assuredly was, and the program presents ample evidence in that direction, as well as dealing with the history of Jones County and exploring the relationship between the various Knight descendants.

    The release also contains trailers for Hardcore Henry (2015), Bad Moms (2016), Hard Target 2 (2016), The Darkness (2016), Snowden (2016), Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016), and The Purge: Election Year (2016).

    The Final Word:

    Free State of Jones is a good film, one that should be watched at least once, if only for the incidental histories it tells among its fabricated main story. Some viewers may take issue with the “white savior” motif (and rightfully so), but if one looks at the film as a historic interracial romance, with the Civil War and its immediate aftermath as the backdrop, then it takes on a whole new meaning. The image is sharp and detailed, the sound is nicely wrought, and the one feature is a fascinating slice of real life.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the 1930s is currently available, with Horror Films of the Silent Era: Book One (1895-1915) and Book Two (1916-1929) due out later this year.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!