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DVD Review: Free State of Jones

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DVD Review: Free State of Jones

Review by Diane McCurdy

Perhaps we use art to transcend some kind of massive  national guilt we feels over our country being founded on the heinous institution of slavery. Now on DVD, the Matthew McConaughey saga. 

Free State of Jones deals with a movie-enhanced but basically the true story of Newton Knight who was a poor white farmer from Jones County, Mississippi who led a rag-tag army of white deserters from the Confederate army and escaped slaves. McConaughey’s rugged good looks are just right to convey a certain compassion and empathy but he is an every day hero not one with a messianic complex. He has taken leave of the army having witnessed the atrocities of war and he joins an enclave of runaways from a near-by plantation.  The leader of that group and Knight bond and co-lead, Rachel, a domestic slave (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) supports the fugitives by bringing supplies and news from the outside. Even though the poor whites and the blacks share injustices, it is never suggested that the transgressions suffered are in any way equal.  However, both factions share a common enemy, the society of the South.    

A subplot forces us eighty-five years into the future when a descendant of Knight is on trial for miscegenation as there is a question as to whether he was descended from Rachel, the slave, or Knight’s wife, Serena (Keri Russell). This part seemed like an appendage pasted on that we really didn’t need or as if  it should have been another story until itself. Maybe it was needed to explain that freedom in the United States is not a given but a work in progress.

Featured now on local screens is another film with a slave rebellion theme which creates a similar scenario delineating another revolt and featuring a second historical figure, Nat Turner. Birth of a Nation received a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival and was purchased for 17 million dollars.  It is a powerful film that is failing at the box office. Could it be because the writer, director and star, Nate Parker, was accused of rape long ago when he was in college? He was exonerated but it was messy. Both of these films deal with rape which seems to be a practice embedded in our history. Matthew McConaughey is a family man with three children. Nate Parker is an accused sexual predator. Can we separate art from the artist?