Wednesday, June 29, 2016

On FREE STATE OF JONES

 The new movie starring Oscar winner Matthew McConaughey, a Civil War drama called FREE STATE OF JONES, has a key element in common with the Netflix original sitcom, UNBREAKABLE KIMMY SCHMIDT.  Like Kimmy, McConaughey's character is a wide-eyed Caucasian outcast who becomes the educated white savior of sorts to a poor black man.  Newton Knight, played by McConaughey, is a Mississippi man who opposes slavery.  Yet, he's drafted into the war to fight on the Confederate side, the side that wants its slaves and cotton.  The opening war sequence is brutal and bloody.  We see a wide-eyed McConaughey at the open and he remains wide-eyed throughout the rest of the film.
We see men made unrecognizable because of being shot in the face, we see a head pretty much explode from gunfire.  We see gaping, bloody wounds. We see boys of high school age drafted into fierce battle for which they are unprepared.  But I could not take my attention off Matthew McConaughey making big eyes.
Not since Bette Davis in the first five minutes of 1940's classic, THE LETTER, has a star been so big-eyed while holding a gun.
Newt's young nephew is killed in battle.  That triggers the Mississippi medic to leave the war and return to his Jones County home and wife (played by Keri Russell).  On the way home, he bonds with runaway slaves, he's chased and bitten by deserter-hunting dogs and he's helped on his journey by a young Creole woman.  When I heard that a young female Creole slave was coming into the picture, I just knew she was going to be a babe.  She was.  Rachel, the Creole, is played gracefully by Gugu Mbatha-Raw star of the 2013 film, BELLE.
McConaughey's eyes get even bigger when Newt sees Rachel for the first time.  So, we have the Civil War, a white Southern man who does not believe in slavery, leaves the battlefront and bonds with runaway male slaves.  He will ultimately help them vote when the war is over.  And we, as moviegoers, know he will be attracted to Rachel as he strives to establish his own peaceful community that embraces diversity.  That community is known as the Free State of Jones.  Then we jump 85 years ahead to a Mississippi court case involving interracial marriage.  Interracial marriage was illegal in Mississippi those 85 years later.

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.
As soon as Newt shows up, he improves the lives of the runaway slaves.  He removes physical bondage.  He improves their menu.  When he arrives, they're sharing one fish cooked over a fire after it was caught in a swamp.  Then they ate cooked dog.  When Newt increases the band of outcasts and adds other white folks into the mix, their eating a basted and succulent roast pig.  And they have beverages.  During this dinner scene, there's racial tension when one white man mouths off about having to share food with a black man.  McConaughey settles things down by reminding the white outcasts that "everybody is somebody's n***er."  They've all got to get along.  And, yes, he gives us the big eye as he delivers this speech.
About Rachel -- it's a mutual attraction.  And he has a white wife.  And he has a child by Rachel.  But the Rachel relationship is so sterile onscreen.  When she's having the baby, you want to say "Well...how did THAT happen?"  Newt and Rachel never so much as passionately hold hands in the movie.  Not one single kiss.  Then BOOM.  Creole baby time.  The same goes for that modern-day courtroom scenes.  No kiss or physical displays of affection from the couple at the center of the interracial marriage court case.  Heck, even BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN had the balls to show you a ranch hand who kissed his wife...and his boyfriend.

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.
Newt is established as the conflicted good guy at the beginning.  He's a Southerner by birth but he has an abolitionist spirit.  In one scene, Newt reads an article in which we realize the injustices of slavery. And the benefits.  Apparently, if you owned 20 slaves, one male did not have to serve in the war.  If you had 40 slaves, two males in the home did not have to serve.  Down South, it was sort of like the other side of a coffee shop discount card.  Buy 20 slaves, get the next one free.

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.
This, in great part, is a war picture and it's a rare picture that shows women bearing arms for battle in a real life war era.  Big and little females take aim in FREE STATE OF JONES.  There's a lot of killing and several funeral in this film.
When the action jumps 85 years ahead, the story connects to Newt's but those scenes need something more.  There's not a smooth transition to those scenes from Newt's drama. And you feel that the really interesting stories were treated like footnotes.  For instance, after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation and the Reconstruction, times for black folks were still hard.  They were still cheated, abused and enslaved.  There was trouble.  Federal troops left, the Ku Klax Klan rode in and burned churches.  On the screen we read that the klan killed hundreds of African-Americans.  It was a home-grown terrorist group that attacked safe havens like churches.                                                
You think of last year's murders of black people in a Charleston church. The killer is a racist.  You think of this year's murders in an Orlando gay bar.  The patrons considered that nightclub to be a safe haven.  But that KKK gets a minor mention with its dark deeds printed on the screen for your information.  Director/screenwriter Gary Ross (seen on the right in the photo below) spends more time on Newt teaching farmers how to take back and hide corn from the enemy than he does on the KKK.
FREE STATES OF JONES is not dull.  Disappointing, but not dull.  But if Newt's relationship with Rachel was meant to give the dramatic story more urgency, to underscore the need for diversity and racial acceptance today, we needed to see some kind of passion between those two characters.  I've seen more physical displays of romantic attraction between kids in Catholic high school.

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.

 








2 comments:

  1. I can just hear your voice reading this excellent, balanced review :) It's a great untold story, even though I sigh in resignation at yet another "White savior" Hollywood offering. And why is Hollywood, post the success of "Scandal" still so reticent at displaying interracial passion onscreen? It's strangely insulting & backward. But my affection & admiration for McConaughey compels me to see it anyway. Maybe not in the theater, though.

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  2. I am so grateful to you for taking time to read my article and respond to it. What a thrill to know that my writing was not done in vain. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    ReplyDelete

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