Free State of Jones, STX Entertainment’s historical biopic about Southern Unionist-cum-freedom fighter Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey as Matthew McConaughey plays most of his roles) hit theaters last June, tanked at the box office, and now arrives in your home theater rotation courtesy of its Blu-ray release.
And, as we did when the film did the theater rounds over the summer, we’re left to answer a handful of questions. Mostly about its purpose: Who, exactly, is Free State of Jones for? What are its intentions, its goals? How in blazes did STX decide on a June release date when the film so desperately belongs in awards season, inasmuch as any work of art can read as “desperate” at face value?
The first of these questions is the most important, but we’ll start off with the softballs. Question three answers question two by happy chance, and its own answer is both trivial and difficult to pin down at the same time. If you follow industry scuttlebutt, you know that Free State of Jones was originally slated for a March 2016 release, which turned into a May release, which then became a June release. The March-to-May move spared the film from competing with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The June move bypassed Marvel’s own Civil War and give audiences a mature alternative to the summer slew of big, stupid movies. Free State of Jones certainly isn’t stupid, but it is big in scope and bigger in ambition, and therein lies its first strike: Ross’s capacities as a narrator are outsized by the picture’s sheer ambition.
Maybe that’s why STX kept it out of the Fall awards ruckus, which circles us back around to that first question: “Who?” If we’re being blunt and inconsiderate, then the response is simply “white moviegoers.” If we’re thinking more than a Tweet ahead of ourselves, things get dicier. Free State of Jones isn’t the kind of movie that inspires broad, positive sentiment, that demands broad, positive defense, or that deserves broad, vituperative critique. For the most part, it’s just there. But Internet culture’s demand for immediacy and its prevailing distaste for nuanced critical thought makes thoroughly parsing films like Free State of Jones an enormous challenge. Knight’s story, as told through Ross’s lens, as well as his screenplay, must be weighed as two distinct quantities: As a white savior yarn and as a chronicle of history—though funny enough, the line of distinction drawn between them is remarkably thin. You might even qualify that line as confounding.
After all, wasn’t Knight, in the annals of the American Civil War, a white savior by the strictest definition of the phrase, being both a white man and also a champion for the enslaved and the oppressed? Does that not make his story, the story of which Free State of Jones is chiefly comprised, a white savior story, a story of a Caucasian hero who fought Confederate rule over the American South, hamstrung its economic power, and in doing so found common social ground for free whites and indentured blacks to stand upon as one? Arguably, yes. Actually, no: Undoubtedly yes, except that applying the term to Knight and thus to Free State of Jones doesn’t carry the same baggage of meaning as when applied to, say, The Legend of Tarzan or Avatar. Reality’s complicated that way. Can you really chide a film for its white saviorism when that film is rooted in the factual?
No, not really, but also yes, sort of. In its own context as narrative, Free State of Jones is unlike what we traditionally think of as white savior fare by dint of its aforementioned factuality. As a movie, in which “movie” translates as “product,” the film fits that mold quite nicely. We’re three years past the critical, commercial, and awards season success of 12 Years a Slave, a beautiful movie about hideous barbarities which refuses to shield its audience from the naked violence of slavery as an institution. Like Free State of Jones, that film features a white do-gooder whose actions are instrumental in freeing its lead character, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), from the bonds of slavery. Like Free State of Jones, that film is founded on truth, bolstered by historical documents. But 12 Years a Slave doesn’t allow its white viewers moments for feeling good about themselves. It is married to the experiences of the slave and not the savior.
Free State of Jones is married to both, much as Knight was married, if not in law than in spirit, to his wife, Serena, and a freedwoman, Rachel, respectively played by Keri Russell and Gugu Mbatha Raw. But it’s devoted more to the latter than to the former. The film puts greater emphasis on Knight than on the runaway slaves who save his life after he decides to desert the Confederate Army following the Battle of Corinth. This makes logical sense for a movie designed to highlight Knight’s life, times and accomplishments, but in doing so it creates a discomfiting equivalence of suffering: The hardships endured by whites under Confederate reign measure the same as those endured by blacks under literally every facet of slave culture that you can imagine. “We’re not so unalike, y’all and we,” Matthew McConaughey says in one very key, very particular scene, though not in so many words.
“Somehow, some way, and some time, everybody is somebody else’s nigger,” Knight rumbles as he eulogizes a handful of fallen brethren, most of them boys, one of them a man, each of them white and each of them dead via Confederate execution for the crimes of desertion and banditry. It’s enough to make you want to turn off your TV, whether by remote or by chucked brick: How can any movie made in 2016 even think to appropriate the knock-out punch of all racial epithets for the sake of whites? In the spirit of generosity, it’s Moses, one of the runaway slaves, played by the great Mahershala Ali in a commanding and sadly underused performance, who raises the point first with three simple: “How you ain’t?” It’s his reproach to one of Knight’s fellow army deserters, who smugly addresses Moses using that grievous, racist appellation, though the man is unsurprisingly immune to the question until Knight explains it to him.
If we want to be even more gracious, we can trace this parity claim to the work of Ta-Nehisi Coates, who in his 2015 nonfiction novel, Between the World and Me, suggests that the meaning of “blackness” is contextualized through history and heritage:
Perhaps there had been other bodies, mocked, terrorized, and insecure. Perhaps the Irish too had once lost their bodies. Perhaps being named ‘black’ had nothing to do with any of this; perhaps being named ‘black’ was just someone’s name for being at the bottom, a human turned to object, object turned to pariah.
Extending this thought to Free State of Jones, there’s nothing wrong with the sentiment Knight expresses about an hour and eighteen minutes into the film. The problem is really with his choice of words, which by extension is Ross’s (or perhaps the other way around).
It’s possible to find universal human experience in oppression and subjugation. It’s not possible to borrow the specific language used in each individual experience and apply it to others. Thus, the film’s verbiage is appalling to the extent that one can’t even hide behind arguments of naturalism: “That’s probably how Knight would have talked!” But it’s not Knight who’s talking. It’s McConaughey. It’s Ross. When Quentin Tarantino writes scripts with racist dialogue, the pop culture world erupts at his brazenness. Is there any reason we shouldn’t do the same for Free State of Jones, especially in the year of Popstar and Atlanta?
Popstar makes white participation in racist jargon as colloquialism into a tremendous, awkward punchline. Given the chance to take a hall pass on using the infamous n-word as an expression of friendship, Conner (Andy Samberg), the film’s main character, immediately turns into a bundle of nerves. Atlanta, by contrast, gives that same opportunity to Dave (Griffin Freeman), one of the show’s few white characters, twice. The first time, when Dave’s in company with Earnest (Donald Glover), likely the “black friend” he claims as a deduction when making the case for his self-professed status as an “ally,” he does so without hesitating. The second time, when he’s in company with Earnest, Earnest’s cousin, Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), and Alfred’s friend, Darius (Keith Stanfield), well, Dave balks, because he knows he’s courting comeuppance if he pulls the proverbial trigger. (It’s a power play by Earnest. You get the sense he’s half-hoping for Dave to get his ass beat. Maybe three-quarters.)
Free State of Jones leans into racist vernacular without consideration or forethought. If the film is set in the 1860s, it’s still made in the 2010s, where one cannot, should not, employ that kind of language without giving either the former or the latter. The effect is to take back the slavery picture for white viewers, to reassure them that we’re done with 12 Years a Slave that the Civil War narrative is in their possession once again, and that their own victimhood and their own benevolence have been validated anew. This is, in short, a big damn shame. The story of Newton Knight deserves to be told, but scrubbed of that kind of sickly affirmation.
Why didn’t Free State of Jones do that? Couldn’t it have? Doesn’t Underground prove that slavery-era thrillers can marry black resistance efforts to white efforts without each overshadowing the other, and without making inappropriate correlations between black and white experiences in the American South in the 1800s?
Maybe. Maybe not. The truth is that as a movie, Free State of Jones isn’t half-bad. It has a few distinct pleasures worth savoring, found mostly in McConaughey’s lead performance as Knight, and also in its many supporting performances—not just of Ali, but of Gugu Mbatha Raw—and the action is appropriately unsanitary, though frequently shot and edited with cumbersome skill.
But movies don’t exist in vacuums, divorced from the substance of their underlying messages. It’s unlikely that Ross’s intentions for Free State of Jones were prejudiced. He probably meant Knight’s big speech for the best. But he and the film cross the line dividing well-meaning and enmity. Maybe it doesn’t matter what the film meant to say, just what it so unfortunately ends up saying.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.