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Review: 'Free State of Jones' a history lesson lacking in direction

Mahershala Ali, left, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a scene from "The Free State of Jones." (Murray Close/STX Productions via AP)

Mahershala Ali, left, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in a scene from "The Free State of Jones." (Murray Close/STX Productions via AP)

Independence Day: Resurgence may be the big blockbuster this weekend, but its protagonists aren't the only ones on screen declaring independence.

Also opening is Free State of Jones, a history lesson about a Confederate enlistee in the Civil War who deserted to form his own territory. It offers some alternative programming to ID:R's mindless summer fare. Yet even if it's more educational, that doesn't mean every decision the movie makes is wise.

From the film's start, Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is already disenchanted with the war. He sees the rich getting preferential treatment, including exemptions for those whose families own 20 slaves or more, while the poor are left to fight and die.

Once those casualties include his nephew, Knight decides to leave for his home of Jones County, Mississippi and his wife (Keri Russell). He ends up hiding in the swamps with a group of runaway slaves, receiving help from one still in servitude named Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).

Eventually their numbers grow to include fellow war-weary soldiers and wives tired of having their farms ransacked by Confederate forces. Soon, they've become the Confederacy's worst nightmare — a faction of black and white, men and women, treated and armed indiscriminately and spouting class war language.

These moments are the movie's strongest, as it details how an internal uprising against the Confederacy was formed and even more incredibly how it succeeded. A funeral turned shootout also provides the only scene that feels unruly, something of which a film about deserters forming an armed rebellion could have used more.

Though director Gary Ross is now best known for helming the first Hunger Games movie, Free State of Jones is much closer to his Seabiscuit, another history lesson that's competently crafted without ever being captivating. A scene scored to a song from the soundtrack to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford mostly serves as a reminder you could be watching that brilliant film instead.

Once the free state of Jones becomes established and the war has ended, the movie also loses its way. The nearly two-and-a-half-hour running length becomes apparent, and the plot becomes more like a series of vignettes.

That's in part because it's making the point that combating racism is a long and arduous process. A Confederate general reappears after the war as a judge upholding plantation "apprenticeships," and flash-forwards show a possible descendant of Newton and Rachel's in a 1940s miscegenation trial.

Yet there's no denying the movie's momentum wanes in the final stretch before coming to an abrupt end. It's like a car that slows to a stop, then slams on the brakes.

Anyone visiting Free State of Jones merely hoping to learn more about an interesting anti-slavery rebellion will likely come away sated, but those looking for an exciting, vital piece of filmmaking will have to wait for another opportunity. Not too long — Nate Parker's Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation comes out in October.

Contact Jimmy Geurts at jgeurts@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3402. Follow @JimmyGeurts.

Free State of Jones

Director: Gary Ross

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

Screenplay: Gary Ross, Leonard Hartman

Rating: R; brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images

Running length: 139 minutes

Grade: C+

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Review: 'Free State of Jones' a history lesson lacking in direction 06/23/16 [Last modified: Thursday, June 23, 2016 3:00pm]
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