Thursday, June 23, 2016

Rebelling against the South's Rebels

Despite Matthew McConaughey's fiery performance, Free State of Jones is a bit of a slog.

Some background: During the heat of the Civil War, Newton Knight left the Confederate army, returned to his Mississippi home and formed a ragtag band of fighters to combat what he viewed as injustices inflected by the Confederate Army on poor farmers and blacks who had been enslaved. Knight's rogue army -- a.k.a. the Knight Company -- was composed of deserters and runaway slaves.

Knight was motivated to desert the Rebel army, where he served as a nurse, by the Confederacy's "Twenty-Negro Law." That law exempted Southerners who owned 20 or more slaves from fighting, thus establishing grounds for believing that the Civil War was a battle in which poor southerners fought to protect the bounties of the rich.

A bona fide man of personality, Knight evidently took seriously the biblical injunction to be fruitful and multiply. He had nine children with Serena, his white wife. Knight also had a common-law wife, a former slave, with whom he had five children.

So was Knight a prototypical hippie or an authentic champion of the poor?

That argument reportedly remains unsettled, but not for director Gary Ross, whose new movie -- The Free State of Jones -- treats Knight (Matthew McConaughey) as a heroic figure who believes in racial equality and in simple economic justice: A man deserves to own what he plants, etc.

I don't know whether Ross's interpretation of history is correct, but I do know that his movie possesses a pulse that beats only intermittently. Free State of Jones also suffers because Ross seems to prefer the lengthy accumulation of events to incisive character development.

Looking fierce, a bearded McConaughey blazes with passion as the committed Knight, but the rest of the cast -- including Knight's two wives (Keri Russell and Gugu Mbatha-Raw) -- aren't given enough chance to evolve.

Like nearly everyone else in the movie, they're swamped by Ross's need to cover ground -- from the waning days of the war through reconstruction to a jarringly presented 1948 trial in which Knight's great-grandson is accused of miscegenation, interracial marriage being illegal in Mississippi.

At times, the movie seems like an American take on Robin Hood with Knight's merry band of rebels living an idyllic life in the Mississippi swamps. At other times, the movie seems like a Western; Knight becomes the loner who protects the weak. At still other times, Ross uses photographs of the period to add authenticity. It's as if Ken Burns cropped up in the middle of the story to add his two cents.

There are compelling scenes, Knight discovering the body of a comrade in arms (Mahershala Ali) who has been hanged and castrated by Klansmen who can't accept the Reconstructionist idea that black men could vote. Unfortunately, such harrowing moments emerge amid what amounts to a general slog through an obscure slice of history.

Not widely known, Knight's story proves interesting enough to keep this lead-footed effort from totally foundering. But Ross (The Hunger Games) squanders an opportunity: Too many of the movie's scenes fail to spark in ways that would have taken The Free State of Jones to more memorable levels.

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