Gary Ross’ Free State of Jones is powerful. A Civil War movie in the vein of Edward Zwick’s Glory, the film tells the true story of a rogue farmer rebelling against the Confederacy. This man recruits fellow army deserters and runaway slaves in his fight against military confiscation of land and supplies. Along the way, he breaks down barriers between soldier and civilian, white and black, free and enslaved. Yes, it is indeed a very powerful story. That Ross chooses to tell it is a testament to his ability to recognize compelling drama when he sees it. But unfortunately whatever power his film has is due to the story he is telling, not in the way he tells it. The film he ultimately makes is one whose emotional weight feels counterfeit and unearned, ultimately falling prey to staggering tone-deafness and self-satisfaction.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Ross seems to see the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) not as one of the era of slavery, but as a function of the Civil War itself. This makes sense, as Knight is a former Confederate soldier. And as Knight builds up his own ragtag guerrilla army and starts to give the Confederate troops trouble, the film’s use of montage, inspirational music, and occasional humor sets it up as a more serious version of Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot. None of this is inherently bad, and Ross orchestrates the action and character beats in a way that is sturdy and straightforward.
Where the film starts to become problematic is in how it involves slavery in the proceedings. By incorporating hard racist language and imagery into the film (including lynchings), Ross hopes to trade on our inherent disgust and horror at this dark aspect of America’s past. And when we see Knight’s attempts to integrate his army and champion the rights of blacks after the war is over, we are meant to be inspired by his bravery.
But while Knight’s inclusive attitude is indeed one to be applauded, the film’s evolution from a war movie into one about slavery carries with it a thematic price that Ross doesn’t seem willing to pay. The film starts to feel more patronizing than sympathetic. By focusing on a white man’s experience of events that involve runaway slaves – a couple of them actually interesting characters – the film feels more than a little self-congratulatory. And when Knight – in what is meant to be a rousing speech to the troops – claims that he and his white cohorts are just as much “niggers” as their black companions, the film really veers into troubling territory.
In what is meant to be a show of solidarity, Knight instead comes off as an oblivious would-be martyr. Because, yes, while it is clear that the Confederacy has contempt for him, this is due to his actions. In the case of the runaway slaves, the contempt comes as a function of their mere existence. That the film doesn’t seem to comprehend this – and aggressively so – speaks to Ross’ misunderstanding of how best to tell this story. One can’t just take a standard Civil War story and throw in slavery for good measure any more than a director can’t make a World War II picture and casually incorporate elements of the Holocaust. Steven Spielberg may have directed Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, but he is intuitive enough to understand that they are almost completely different genres; to mix them would be to cheapen both.
But, of course, Free State of Jones tells a story that actively involves runaway slaves fighting alongside white soldiers against the Confederate Army. True, but even in doing so, a film like Glory accomplishes this much more effectively, in director Edward Zwick’s decision to cast heavy-hitters like Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman as black Union soldiers and make their characters at least as dynamic as their white counterparts. And while Ross does give actors Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali somewhat substantial roles, there is no questioning that this film is first and foremost about Newton Knight and his leadership. Development of any other character is secondary.
Perhaps Gary Ross’ goal was to put his audience in Knight’s position, inspiring them to take a stand in these racially-charged times. That is a perfectly fine goal, but it has the unintended consequence of taking the plight of the film’s black characters and turning it into a lesson for the white protagonist to learn. Better instead that Ross recognize, by tackling Southern racism and slavery in his Civil War film, his film would need to be changed and adapted, acknowledging the sacrifice – voluntary or otherwise – of his black characters alongside his white ones.
All of this adds up to a film that deals in tremendous emotional power, but doesn’t understand quite how to wield it. It would be easy to mistake the inherent impact of slavery for the artistic impact of a well-made film. To do so would be to let Gary Ross off the hook for having no idea how to approach this material, but going ahead anyway with a confidence that comes across as being overly pleased with himself for even attempting it.