Thursday, June 30, 2016

Some Thoughts on Free State of Jones

I am in no way, shape or form a movie buff, but as a student of the Civil War, I wanted to see Free Story of Jones when I heard about it and, surprisingly, have already seen it, only a few days after its release. I did not even see Lincoln until a couple of months after it came out, so this was different.

I enjoyed this movie. It was entertaining and seemed reasonably believable, not like a fairy tale or total fabrication. I will discuss it here a bit, with the disclaimer that I do not watch a lot of movies and am not an experienced reviewer of them, even ones based on historical occurrences. I won't discuss acting, cinematography or anything like that. 

This may end up as more of a "discussion" than an actual review, as I try to explain the thoughts I had during and after seeing it. I do not intend to give any sort of "spoilers" in this discussion but I make no promises, so anybody who does not want to read about parts of the storyline may want to read this post later. I imagine I will get into some specific scenes for which I had some thoughts or ideas.

I also admit that I have not read the book on which the movie is based, nor studied the situation in Mississippi much, so I cannot opine on how accurate the details of the movie are. I will just do my best to describe the thoughts and reactions that the movie provoked in my mind.

The intensity of the movie surprised me. The intensity (the best word I an think to use) began with the excellent (and surprising) opening scenes. Whoever decided to open the movie like that made a very good call . Not all of the movie was at that same level, but much of it was, which I thought made the whole movie better. 

I like that the movie has both action scenes and more "talking" scenes instead of all of just one of those. Another movie I watched the same day was almost all action and fighting. It was a decent film (seeing it in 3D helped) but all of the action kind of blended together. That really did not happen in Free State. 

The portrayal of Newton Knight as a soldier and how he became disillusioned with the Confederacy seemed reasonable. The reality of battle, his nephew's death, the tax-in-kind on common citizens and the 20 Negro rule all were part of the script. The common line "rich man's war, poor man's fight" also was spoken as part of his developing dislike towards the cause for which he had enlisted.

His escape from the Confederates who were trying to catch him seemed a bit too good to be true to me. Even when the dog caught him and delayed  him, the rest of the party did not catch up to him or see exactly where he went, even as he limped forward.

Once he was in the swamp with a few escaped slaves and an increasing number of deserters, the remaining Confederates came across as silly, almost stupid, repeatedly going down what appeared to be the same road in the woods only to be ambushed by Knight's men multiple times without seeming to try a different route or strategy. Did it really happen like that?

When the story needed to show the increase in the number of Confederate deserters, it simply flashed "July 1863, Vicksburg is surrendered. Desertion increases" on the screen. I guess that was a good way to tell of increased desertion in a timely manner, but thought the movie could have at least indicated that Vicksburg was also in Mississippi, like the rest of the story. Any non-Civil War students may not have realized that and I do think that would have helped at least a bit.

Also at this time, two images of the damage caused by war flashed on the screen. I did not recognize one of them, but the other was the famous image of the Dunker Church at Antietam. My first instinct was to ask why use an image from such a far battlefield, but this really does not matter. That level of detail was probably insignificant; I suppose the picture used was good enough to make its point.

A couple other items I wish to mention include the "hanging" scene. I thought it was very good overall, especially the lead-up showing the emotions involved - the fear and sadness were very clear - but thought it could have been more powerful or intense had they shown the bodies dropping and jolting to a stop. That may have, however, been a bit too much for the intended audience, so I cannot complain much about it.

The role women played in this movie was noteworthy too. The moment I especially noticed it was when the women were sitting and shucking the corn while the men were picking it and carrying the baskets of corn to be shucked. There was an unmistakeable separation of gender roles in that scene, but in earlier and later scenes the movie showed women running the household while men were gone, directing slaves to help refugees and even carrying arms to defend their homes. A later scene even showed women firing guns at Confederates who were trying to capture Newton and his men. This movie did portray mostly traditional roles for men and women (men in the army, women at home) but still gave the women some strength and determination. They were not helpless victims at all.

I thought the same showed for the African-Americans who joined Knight's group, though I thought they disappeared for a while. When Knight went into the swamps, he was with a small group of escaped slaves but as the movie showed the increasing amount of army deserters joining Knight, the ex-slaves did not seem to be as present for a while, before re-emerging as strong characters towards the end of the film. I thought the various scenes showing some parts of African-American life as slaves and immediately after the war added a lot of meaning to the movie. The characters "Rachel" and "Moses" were especially important ones.

This added meaning especially showed up in the Reconstruction scenes. Having a section on Reconstruction was a great, perhaps brilliant, idea, providing valuable perspective on some of the difficulties African-Americans faced during this time and the legacy of the war. This is a lesson many (most?) American can use. 

I did find the Reconstruction section, as valuable as it was, to be a bit disjointed. There were frequent captions on the screen to provide information on what was happening or on what the movie could not show. It seemed to me that the movie writers had a lot to say in this part of the film, but did not have enough time, so they had to pick and chose some storylines to include while omitting others. The final product turned out well, but perhaps could have been smoother, though that may be easier said than done. Even a long movie like this has limits.

The voting scene, including the showing of the actual vote count, with only two Repiublican votes being counted, was very effective.

One nit I do wish to pick here was that the Reconstruction piece of the film began with a quick showing of a portrait of Abraham Lincoln to represent his passing. I felt that an image of the actual assassination would have been more powerful in showing the change of leadership.

In addition to the war and Reconstruction storylines, the  various court scenes about the challenge to Knight's descendant's attempted marriage were powerful as well, showing how the legacies of the war and reconstruction (and the importance of race and racial roles) were still around Mississippi in the 1940s, so many years later. This was tied in to the movie's depiction of the relationship between Knight and Rachel, giving these scenes a connection to the rest of the story.

One thing that I noted and thought was interesting about the entire film is that the words "Confederacy" and its derivatives ("Confederate," etc.) were barely mentioned. I only remember seeing it in a couple of the captions and am not sure if any characters uttered such words. If so, it was not frequent. I wonder if this was intentional and if it actually means much or was just a natural part of the story's flow. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this movie, despite the few small quibbles I mentioned. It is a long movie, but tells several different stories about the war, Recinstruction, race relations and family ties. There is quite a bit of intense action throughout it, as well as a mix of more peaceful scenes of thought and discussion. It features several characters who earn the viewers' sympathies, as well as a few "villains" who are less likable. I certainly believe that anyone interested in the Civil War should find time to go see it and that even those not particularly interested in history should as well. I may even go see it again, which is not something I often do for movies. (I'm not sure I have ever watched the same movie twice in a theater.) It is a good, enjoyable film with plenty of action, stories and characters to catch the viewers' interest and tells a story of the Civil War era perhaps unlike any other in popular media. 

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