Newt is the story's leader of a group of interracial outcasts -- runaway slaves and fellow Civil War deserters. Newt leads a rebellion. The war ends and there's Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, but things really don't change in Mississippi. Just like America didn't become immediately "post-racial" when Barack Obama was elected President of the U.S. for his first term, black folks weren't really free after the Emancipation Proclamation. Newt marches in with black men to challenge the racists who won't let them vote. That scene is interesting. Black Republicans were a whole lot different back in the 1800s.
My friend Mike Sargent, film critic and New York city radio host, also saw this new movie and did some reading up on the actual story. We talked about the real story and it's a complex, fascinating piece of American history. More fascinating than this movie. Not only that, but Hollywood filmed an earlier version of a picture based on the FREE STATE OF JONES story. But, which will come as no surprise, Hollywood watered down -- or pretty much washed out -- the black element of the story and replaced it with a friendly Native American character played by Boris Karloff. The movie is 1948's TAP ROOTS starring Van Heflin and Susan Hayward.
McConaughey is earnest with his Bette Davis eyes and slightly Foghorn Leghorn voice. Newt Knight is out to do the right thing. To me, the stand-out performance in FREE STATE OF JONES comes from Mahershala Ali as Moses the runaway slave/freedom fighter friend to Newt. TV viewers know Mr. Ali from HOUSE OF CARDS. He is excellent as Moses.
The film tries to make a History Channel point but the tone is uneven. Remember the 1988 movie MISSISSIPPI BURNING? That was based on a real life crime -- the disappearance and murder of three young adult males -- two white and one black -- who'd gone Down South the help in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The FBI investigated the murder of the three men determined to register black people for the right to vote. The KKK was involved in the murders. This was a major crime in the history of modern Black America. However, the movie focuses on the white characters. The same pretty much applies to FREE STATE OF JONES.