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Movie Review

The Free State of Jones

MPAA Rating: R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images.

Reviewed by: Jeremy Landes

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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Action Biography War History Drama
2 hr. 19 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
June 24, 2016 (wide—2,600+ theaters)
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Relevant Issues
Copyright, STX Entertainment

fighting tyranny


protecting the weak and disadvantaged / widows / orphans


slaves in the Bible

Does the Bible condone slavery? Answer

FOUNDING FATHERS AND SLAVERY—Were all of America’s Founding Fathers racists, pro-slavery, and hypocrites? Answer


RACISM—What are the consequences of racial prejudice and false beliefs about the origin of races? Answer

Racism, Racial Issues and Christianity
Get biblical answers to racial hot-topics. Where did the races come from? How did skin color come about? Why is it important to have a biblical foundation for such issues?

American Civil War

armed rebellion against the Confederacy

war in the Bible

What is the Biblical perspective on war? Answer

mixed race community

Is interracial marriage biblical?

rich versus poor

Issue of pain and suffering

Why does God allow innocent people to suffer? Answer

What about the issue of suffering? Doesn’t this prove that there is no God and that we are on our own? Answer

Does God feel our pain? Answer

ORIGIN OF BAD—How did bad things come about? Answer

Did God make the world the way it is now? What kind of world would you create? Answer

FILM VIOLENCE—How does viewing violence in movies affect families? Answer

Featuring: Matthew McConaugheyNewton Knight
Gugu Mbatha-Raw … Rachel
Keri RussellSerena Knight
Mahershala Ali … Moses Washington
Sean Bridgers … Sumrall
Jacob Lofland … Daniel
Jessica Collins … Annie
Liza J. Bennett … Junie Lee
Christopher Berry … Jasper Collins
Kerry Cahill … Mary
Gary Grubbs … Prosecuting Attorney
more »
Director: Gary Ross—“The Hunger Games” (2012), “Pleasantville” (1998), “Seabiscuit” (2003)
Producer: Huayi Brothers Media
Larger Than Life Productions
more »
Distributor: STX Entertainment

What do you do if your government is corrupt and treats widows and orphans with contempt? In “The Free State of Jones” about Newton Knight, we see how one man, with a combination of common sense and theology, answers this question by leading others in a small revolution against the Confederacy during the Civil War.

As the Civil War is just beginning, Newton (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate soldier, transports the wounded from the battle field until a horrifying event compels him back home to Mississippi to deliver a body for burial. After Newton returns to his family, he’s labeled a deserter and discovers that women and kids are being victimized by Confederate officers demanding one-tenth from every farm’s crop/livestock, though they take much more. To fight this, Newton gives guns to little girls and their mom. He is then forced to hide in a swamp with runaway slaves. Newton unites with them and other renegade soldiers to form a tribe like Robin Hood and his Merry Men, stealing from the rich soldiers to feed themselves and care for the poor. During these years, Newton falls in love with a former slave, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Growing up watching movies, I’ve usually gotten the impression that all the Confederates were the bad guys because they wanted to keep people enslaved, but this movie paints a more complicated picture. We see poor Southerners being drafted into the war by wealthy lawmakers, who are exempt from fighting if they own a sufficient number of slaves. You might expect that the story would end with the announcement that slavery has been abolished and a joyful celebration, but in this movie the end-of-war announcement is just depicted with a whisper. Then we see how the Reconstruction after the war brought more problems to former slaves, as landowners captured people again to serve as their “apprentices” in the cotton fields.

Usually, movies have a dramatic arc in which tensions rise against a protagonist until he/she finds a way to overcome the conflict during the story’s climax, followed by a resolution to set injustices right. But the filmmakers of “The Free State of Jones” seem to care less about entertainment than sharing a comprehensive view of history connected with Newton Knight’s family—even including events from the 1940s influenced by decisions in the 1860s. The movie remains captivating, despite repeated jumps into the future, because director Gary Ross helps us empathize with people caught up in this era of huge change. Many references are made to the Bible—about reaping what you sow and how human beings should consider themselves children of God, not slaves. It seems clear that Newton Knight believes the Bible, and when he witnesses injustice, he sees himself and his followers as instruments of God’s judgment. For instance, it’s terrible to watch children crying as they’re about to be hanged by Confederate villains for associating with Knight, but it gives the filmmakers license to later show Knight strangle a Confederate in a church pew.

Thinking about whether I’d take a teenager (maybe 15+) to “The Free State of Jones,” I would say that the movie has value because it offers an alternative perspective of the Civil War and race relations before, during, and after Reconstruction. Knight doesn’t go through a formalized divorce from his first wife, who has left him, before commencing a marriage-like relationship with Rachel, so one could argue that he committed adultery by starting a family with her. It was impossible for them to marry at that time. For many reasons, I think Newton Knight’s story was still worth telling, so it would have been wrong to leave out this part of his story. It is told without explicit sexual references or scenes.

Because the film is about war, there’s a lot of violence, and some of it is quite graphic. There’s violence against animals, too. Characters in the film often use the “n” word in reference to both black and white people to describe someone who’s very subservient. One woman describes being raped often over many years, and she has just been whipped for protesting. The movie caused me to wonder how I would respond if I was being forced to fight for a government that endorsed slavery. It reminded me of how recently America has not been a “land of the free” for all races and classes.

It’s not a masterpiece of cinema as much as it’s a history lesson brought to life, and it’s often hard to tell where the story is heading because the filmmakers have just chosen a few key highlights of Newton Knight’s life. Perhaps, like Ross’ last film, “The Hunger Games,” it’s intended to inspire a new generation of Americans to question their government leaders and hold them accountable when they treat the poor with contempt. You’re not going to walk out of this movie feeling great about America’s record on race-relations, but maybe you’ll be upset enough to teach the next generation to keep their eyes open for tyranny.

Violence: Heavy to Extreme / Profanity: Moderate / Sex/Nudity: Minor

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.

Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Positive—Newton Knight was my great, great grandfather, so we were really excited to see a movie made about him. I thought the movie was well made and accurately depicted the violence and gore of the Civil War. It had a strong family component and showed that he was willing to help those less fortunate. Newton Knight was known in our family as a rebel and a scoundrel. The movie showed that side, as well. They got confused on his wives though. Newton actually had 3 wives. The first wife was shown correctly, but his second wife was named Serene and was a black woman. His third wife was Rachel and was my great, great grandmother. She was full blood Cherokee/Choctaw Indian.

I took my mom and husband to the movie, and we enjoyed it for what it was. I knew that the movie did not accurately depict his life, but what Hollywood move does? They have to add to it to make it sell-able. Overall, I enjoyed the movie! I had heard stories of Newt Knight, but it was great to see it come to life on screen.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 3
—Dolores, age 54 (USA)
Movie Critics

…It’s anti-war, anti-plutocracy and anti-racist, but it’s also pro-Bible, pro-gun, anti-tax and sympathetic to the poor whites who usually get tagged as racist. Its hero is an avowed Republican named Newt. … [3/4]
—Kyle Smith, New York Post

…a sometimes ponderous movie that left me feeling more tired than inspired by the end… But beneath rivulets of blood and lugubrious storytelling are beautiful messages about freedom, equality, self-reliance and the faith that undergirds it all. …
—Paul Asay, Plugged In

…“Free State of Jones” is earnest and sometimes exhilarating, but packs too much in… something of a messy sprawl: Whole swaths of it seem completely, sometimes horrifyingly, believable. Other sections may be historically correct, but also arrive on-screen feeling lifeless and flat. …
—Stephanie Zacharek, Time magazine

…More history than drama… A compelling and little-known story of the Civil War period is studiously reduced to a dry and cautious history lesson in Free State of Jones. …
—Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

…a Civil War drama written and directed with more doggedness than excitement by Gary Ross, there is never much doubt about the kind of man that Newton Knight is. He’s Kevin Costner in “Dances with Wolves” crossed with a saintly Marxist professor crossed with a white version of Malcolm X. …
—Owen Gleiberman, Variety

…this is not, as some have feared, a case of the noble white man saving the poor blacks. …Ross errs in trying to cover too much ground…
—Chris Knight, National Post

…history scrubbed clean… a fiction film all too freely adapted from historical records…
—Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal

…“Free State of Jones” aspires to greatness but fumbles badly. …[2½/4]
—Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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