The "Free State of Jones" really represents a minor blip in history, but it has had some impact. For one, the South was not as monolithic as we have assumed.
Not covered in my history classes and I suspect not much mention in Amerian classes either. William Faulkner wrote "The past is not dead. It's not even past." Race is critical in American society and to some extent the movie demonstrates this.
It deals with the notion that the American Civil War was at bottom a war to maintain slavery. Early in the film it recounts a Confederacy edict that would exempt one white person for every twenty slaves owned by a family. Many of the recruits quickly realized that it was a rich man's war and a poor man's fight. In Jones county they learned civic authorities were collecting taxes in kind (horses, pigs, corn, etc) that often left the citizens starving. The desertion rate was in the tens of thousands which is close to where the movie begins. This set up Newton Knight to rebel against the rebellion.
Newton was a deserter who felt more loyalty to the Union than the Confederacy. In fleeing authorities he encountered other deserters as well as runaway slaves who found swamps a good place to hide and avoid detection from dogs. Although married and with kids (the movie only shows one) he became attracted to a slave, Rachel and they went on to have a number of children.
The movie is gruesome in part with very briefly a scene of a head half torn away after being hit by cannon. Deserters were more common and in the end were a major factor in the defeat of the Confederacy.
Movie was interjected with a modern court case of 1948 when one of the descendents of Newton Knight was charged with miscenegation. They claimed he was at least 1/8 black, making it illegal for him to marry a white woman. Flashback to the main narrative we have just met his supposed grandmother helping Newton hiding. He is already married with one child. Later we learn that there was a lot of inter racial mixing in Jones with some ended up passing as whites while others found acceptance in different communities difficult.
One aspect of how the slave owners maintained control was keeping the slaves ignorant and unable to communicate or organize. Reading was considered a dangerous skill. We see Rachel attempting to learn reading while youngsters in her household are taught elementary skills. She hides her interest from the owners. Later in the movie she is able to learn to read. The southern reason often given was that Africans weren't intelligent enough to read and wouldn't need it for the work they were required to do.
The Civil War only partially settled affairs for the former African slaves. The movie takes us into the Reconstruction where the whites fought back and succeeded in establishing segregation. Newton was still standing up for the families of former slaves.
Gary Ross, first encountered the idea in 2006, but short of money he worked on the "Hunger Games" (2012 not seen). Writing the script and developing a cast took another few years. Gary's father had been a tv writer, Arthur A Ross. Gary also started writing for tv, but got his big break with "Big" (1988) He had success writing, but with "Seabiscuit" (2003 not seen) he started directing. Altogether as writer, director and producer he received 4 Oscar nominations. After "The Hunger Games" he rejected opportunities to work on the sequels as he felt they were too rushed.
The original music came from Nicholas Britall who wrote the music for "Moonlight"(2016) and is also writing the music for Gary Ross' next, "Ocean's Eight."
Benoit Dulhamm handled the cinematography. Born in France he also worked on "the Theory of Everything," and "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas" (2008).
Despite criticisms that the movie covered too much I felt it was fine with flash forwards and going beyond the Civil War itself, because the story didn't (hasn't)end(ed). I felt the editing was effective keeping up interest while showing connections between the past and more modern times. Juliette Welfing, also with a French background has been involved with a number of movies I also thought were very effective "The Diving Bell and Butterfly" (2007 nominated for Oscar editing)," Dheepan" (2015), "The Prophet" (2009), "Rust and Bones" (2013), Miral (2010), "Read My Lips" (2001) and The Hunger Games. She will also be working on Gary ross's next, "Ocean's Eight."
Matthew McConaghey, won an Oscar for "Dallas Buyers Club" (2013). Decalred sexiest man alive by People magazine, but turned away from romantic comedies after 2010. He was excellent as Newton.
Gugu Mabatha-Raw, born of a English nurse and South African doctor. Her character Rachel was also bi-racial. Gugu appeared as the title character in "Belle" (2013) and later, as Will Smith's wife in "Concussion"(2015).
Mahershala Ali after this film won Oscar for best supporting actor in "Moonlight" ( not yet seen becoming first Muslim to do so. Well know character in "House of Cards." His character was a composite of runaway slaves.
Keri Russell got her start as a Disney Mousketeer. She won a Golden Globe for a tv series, "Felicity" (not seen). Also had a role in "Dawn of the Planet of Apes" (2014). She had the difficult role of playing Newton Knight's only wife and stayed on the property after Newton lived openly with Rachel. Altogether in reality she had nine children by Newton. It was said that she probably left Newton after he cohabited with a daughter or Rachel's (by another man) after Rachel died.
The many who played in Newton's rebellion and Confederate soldiers were uniformly excellent which probably credits director and producer Gary Ross.
2 hours 19 minutes to view was too much for some viewers. There was a lot of information that had to be left out to retain the essence of the story. An 18 minute short "The History of the Free State of Jones" was also interesting and I realize some of these people contributed to the story and some even had bit parts in the movie.
The movie illustrates that class does play a role in history. An interesting book that illustrates this well is "White Trash Here is a post on it: http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2017/02/white-trash.html
Note: I have seen all the movies listed except "The Hunger Games," "Moonlight," "Seabiscuit" and the tv series "Felicitiy." I saw an earlier generation of the Mouseketeers. One of my more popular blogs included "The Diving Bell and Butterfly" which you can read at: http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2013/10/paralyzed-men-in-4-foreign-movies.html