I saw Free State of Jones last night, and I really liked it. It was historically accurate, as much as I think a film like that can be. Puncturing the myth of a solid South during the Civil War is crucial, and making Reconstruction an important part of the story is much needed.
This review will have spoilers, if you haven’t seen the movie (and you should!).
People who know a lot more than me can tell you about the specifics of the history, but I’m particularly interested in one aspect of the movie as a movie, rather than as history. Smart reviewers like Christian McWhirter and Glenn Brasher agreed with critics who found the last act of the film, about Reconstruction, the weakest. Admittedly it’s a small sample size (my wife and myself), but the audience I watched the film with found the Reconstruction sections, jumping ahead using photographs and captions, just fine. The captions perhaps didn’t capture the realities of Reconstruction, but watching a black man registering sometimes illiterate voters and seeing what became of him as a result made Reconstruction real and weighty in a way I haven’t seen done before. I think it works as a whole for a few different reasons.
The most obvious reason is that the movie is just well made. Good character building and good plotting can make up for each other; we’re invested in the world and the people. Viewers care about what happens next. I particularly liked the way that Rachel’s story was so carefully told, not as explicit in its depictions of horrors as, say, Twelve Years a Slave, but still making clear that even the best-treated slaves faced unthinkable hardship and mistreatment. Matthew McConaughey almost edges over into White Savior territory, but the film makes it clear that the participation of blacks is just as crucial as is the participation of whites in the brief blooming of African American political participation.
I also think this movie matches the times, capturing the zeitgeist of our less optimistic age. As Glenn notes, “Further, perhaps audiences SHOULD walk away from a Civil War movie with a dejected feeling of “was it all in vain?” as white supremacy is restored in the post-war South.” This is not a happy time for American political culture; police brutality toward African Americans is clearly not going away, and Trumpery runs rampant. It’s been clear for a while that improvements in race relations and opportunities for minorities in America have stalled out. Some important gains have proven to be small victories that don’t address larger structural and social problems.
But the most subtle reason I think that the movie works is because of how it’s structured in terms of the roles that the characters play. Newton Knight is the main character of the film, but I don’t think he is a protagonist. Knight seems like the protagonist; he does a lot of stuff, and he’s the most famous actor. But the protagonist of a movie is who (or what) drives the plot. Knight wants to not fight in a war for rich people, he wants Confederates to stop taking his neighbors’ stuff, he wants to maintain the interracial community he has created. This is all reactive! You can have a protagonist who is reacting to things if they drive the plot forward (Luke Skywalker), but Knight doesn’t.
The real protagonist of the movie is the Confederacy itself, or more generally the existing system of white supremacy, embodied in a series of unlikable villains. White supremacy sets the plot in motion (before the movie begins), it drives the action, and it changes the most over the course of the film. What does this protagonist want? It wants to maintain itself; it wants to survive – a classic protagonist’s impulse. The film starts at the beginning of Newton Knight’s story, but for the protagonist it’s in media res; the movie starts, after all, in the middle of a battle in the middle of the Civil War. We the audience should already know but are reminded frequently that the Civil War is over slavery; that’s taken for granted. White supremacy has begun a war to protect itself. To survive it must win the war; to win the war it must take from its non-slaveholding population and protect the system of slavery.
I think you could say this movie has two opposing protagonists; Knight decides what he wants (the declared principles of the Free State of Jones), but it takes him a while to get there (which happens – it takes The Dude half the movie to figure out his narrative in The Big Lebowski). But I think Knight works best as the antagonist. The protagonist wants things, but Knight is trying to stop it. He is effective, but he isn’t necessarily decisive. Due largely to off-camera events (something that is emphasized when Sherman doesn’t provide much help – the larger Union effort doesn’t see southeast Mississippi as strategically important), white supremacy falls to its lowest point.
White supremacy tries to keep up the same system, forcing Moses’ son back into the fields, but that doesn’t work in the long run. We see Knight stand up against black codes, but so does the United States Army. The jumping ahead during Reconstruction doesn’t happen at the protagonist’s peak, but at its nadir. So white supremacy changes; instead of fighting in the open in battles and seizing crops, it takes shape in fraudulent vote totals and men in masks setting fire to homes or committing murder off-screen. Newton Knight changes a little, but white supremacy changes the most.
I don’t know if this entirely explains the difference between audience reactions (as of right now 71% approved at Rotten Tomatoes) and the critics’ views (42% approval). Critics might see this clunky structure as a problem. But I think audiences identify with Knight. He’s who you want to be (unrealistically so, but that’s the point of movies): bravely standing up to a larger system, doing the right thing even if you’re facing a system you ultimately can’t defeat.