The slave raids led by Nat Turner and John Brown are well documented in the annals of American history. However, the story of another abolitionist and insurrectionist has somehow slipped through the cracks. At least until now.
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), the grandson of a slave owner, was born and raised in Jones County, Mississippi. That alone should make him an unlikely person to mount a revolt against the status quo in the South. He served as a medic in the Confederate army during the Civil War, and was disheartened when he learned that the sons of large plantation owners had been exempted from the military draft. He was further demoralized when a fresh young recruit (Jacob Lofland) from Knight’s hometown, who had just joined his unit, died in a battle.
Since he couldn’t see any sense in a war where poor people were fighting to preserve the privileges of the very rich, Newt went AWOL, taking the dead boy’s body with him. He returned to Jones County where he was quickly identified as a deserter. After his wife (Keri Russell) abandoned him and his farm was confiscated by the Confederacy, he fled for his life, and found sanctuary in a swamp deep in the woods that was inhabited by a handful of escaped slaves.
There, he befriended Moses (Mahershala Ali), a runaway slave with an iron collar that had been soldered around his neck by a sadistic slave master. Newt, a blacksmith by trade, gained the group’s trust by removing the collar from Moses’s neck.
A naturally charismatic person, Newt quickly became the group’s leader, and founded the Free State of Jones that had four core principles that promoted racial equality. Gradually, their ranks swelled to over 250, with ex-slaves and disaffected Rebels joining them.
Thus unfolds Free State of Jones, a biopic written and directed by four-time Oscar-nominee Gary Ross.
Matthew McConaughey shines from beginning to end in the film. The drama is compelling, primarily because nobody knew that this revolt had occurred in Mississippi. a state known for its segregation and intolerance.
Very Good (***). Rated R for brutal battle scenes, an ethnic slur, and disturbing images. Running time: 139 minutes. Distributor: STX Entertainment.