Lawrence Toppman

‘Free State of Jones’: McConaughey’s best performance?

Matthew McConaughey makes a strong impression as Newton Knight, a small farmer defying the Confederacy, in “Free State of Jones.”
Matthew McConaughey makes a strong impression as Newton Knight, a small farmer defying the Confederacy, in “Free State of Jones.” 2015 STX Productions

Depending on whom you ask, Newton Knight was a renegade or a patriot; a selfish deserter from the Confederacy or a crusader against the rebels’ secession from the Union; a man who followed his heart with women or an amoral guy who left his white wife and fathered several children with Rachel, a black woman once owned by his grandfather. (He may ultimately have married Rachel; reports vary.)

The thoughtful “Free State of Jones” depicts him as an ordinary citizen who slowly came to realize he was leading an extraordinary life. The movie remains quiet and deliberate, a synonym for “boring” in some minds (though not mine). In the end, it becomes an allegory for the times in which we live.

The title refers to Knight’s name for Jones County, Miss., where he led an uprising of poor whites and former slaves against the Confederate Army from late 1863 to early 1865. They successfully fought off Confederate attempts to subdue or re-enlist them before the war ended. (Knight lived until 1922 and was buried alongside Rachel, his black companion, despite a state law segregating cemeteries.)

Writer-director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit”) works from a story he concocted with Leonard Hartman. They depict Knight, who is played with a visionary’s fervent stare by Matthew McConaughey, as a man who reached his mid-20s with a conventional life: Marriage to Serena (Keri Russell), management of a small farm with no slaves, cooperation with the Confederates who drafted him into service.

Then he hears about the “20 Negro” law, which lets a landowning family with 20 slaves exempt a son from service, and he realizes poor men have been conscripted to protect rich men’s cotton. Another incident brings home the futility of this war, and he deserts.

Back on his farm, he learns Confederate troops are stripping small landowners of livestock and goods for the war effort. He enters a swamp, where runaway Moses (Mahershala Ali) leads a group of slaves. Eventually, a large community of blacks and whites come together there, and Knight meets Rachel (the effective Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Ross wastes time with cutaways to a 1940s miscegenation case, where one of Knight’s descendants with a small portion of black blood is accused of marrying a white woman. (Mississippi remained racially backward? Hardly news.)

But the narrative that carries Knight through Reconstruction, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the subjugation of freed blacks gets told with subdued horror. McConaughey’s performance, one of his best, shows us a stubborn man who refuses to believe conditions won’t improve and human beings won’t wise up.

Historians still chew over the accuracy of this view: Smithsonian magazine just published an article optimistically titled “The True Story of the Free State of Jones,” and Charlotte’s Kathleen Shelby Boyett has entered the controversy with her book “Free State of Jones and Parallels.”

Ross and Hartman want to start a discussion, not conclude one. They argue that poor whites and blacks had much more in common than poor whites and rich whites, so the upper class used race as a wedge between people who should have been allies. As the divide between economic classes widens today, “Free State of Jones” remains as relevant as ever.

Toppman: 704-358-5232

‘Free State of Jones’

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, Keri Russell.

Writer-Director: Gary Ross.

Length: 139 minutes.

Rating: R (brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images).