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Free State of Jones

If you go see “Free State of Jones,” go ahead and take your time getting popcorn and soda pop.  If you miss the first half of the movie, you’re not really missing much. It’s a pretty standard re-telling of the Robin Hood myth, set in Mississippi at the tail end of the Civil War.  The beats were so predictable, it proceeded so methodically, that my eyelids grew heavy.

Matthew McConnaughey plays a confederate medic who deserts the army when his young cousin is shot and killed. He decides to take his cousin’s body home for a proper burial, but once he’s there, he sees confederate agents pillaging the home of the people he knows, taking nearly everything from them to feed and clothe the soldiers. McConnaughey is led by a slave into the swamp, where a small band of runaway slaves are hiding.  Of course, he decides to lead them into a full-fledged rebellion, though he doesn’t have the first clue what it’s like to be a runaway slave. He gathers other white deserters to him, and they rescue wagon loads of food and supplies being taken by the confederates and returns it to the people it belongs to.

“Free State of Jones” isn’t very interested in the ways the white former confederate soldiers and the runaway slaves relate to each other, and that’s a shame.  McConaughey makes a few vague statements like “men are men, regardless of the color of their skin” but the movie really wants us to believe that the real bad guys were the rich white slave owners, and the poor whites were just as exploited as their African counterparts.  That’s a pretty heavy gloss on history, and I’m not buying it.

Robin Hood myths almost always end with Richard the Lion-hearted returning, making Robin a knight, and throwing the Sheriff of Nottingham in the clinker.  This is where “Free State of Jones” departs from the pattern, and actually becomes a much more interesting movie.  In the third act, the war ends, but instead of things getting better, everything gets worse. Slave owners, and their sons, return, and they’re definitely not Lion-hearted. They do everything they can to return things back to the way they were before the war. There are “apprentice laws” which return people to slavery, the elections are rigged, and the KKK is on the rise, even as Union forces are withdrawing. It’s bleak, but it’s a chapter of history I don’t think I’ve ever seen on the big screen.  And while the film’s attempt to tap into the current rich/poor gap feels tired and contrived, this part feels relevant, as it explores the ways that racism, and de facto slavery, continued even after the war was won.  The last third of this movie is really worth seeing; it’s just too bad you have to sit through the first two thirds to get to it.  Maybe you can take a nap.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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