The Culture Movies

'Free State of Jones' is powerful but lacks nuance

'Jones' stars Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who enlisted a group of renegade slaves and other Southerners for a rebellion against the Confederacy. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali co-star.

'Free State of Jones' stars Mahershala Ali (l.) and Matthew McConaughey (r.).
Murray Close/STX Productions/AP
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  • Peter Rainer
    Film critic

In “Free State of Jones,” Matthew McConaughey plays the real-life figure Newton Knight, a Mississippi farmer who enlisted a group of renegade slaves and white Southerners for a rebellion against the Confederacy. It’s a powerful story but, as written and directed by Gary Ross, it has a by-the-books straightforwardness that sacrifices nuance for homiletics. 

Newton is valiant from the get-go when, as a medic in the Confederate Army, he witnesses the death of a young boy he befriended and goes rogue. Nothing really roils his sense of mission. McConaughey is convincing as far as the role allows him to go, which, in psychological terms, isn’t all that far.

In supporting roles, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Rachel, the equally valiant house slave Newton makes his common-law wife, and Mahershala Ali as Moses, the leader of the renegade slaves, provide some powerful moments. Grade: B- (Rated R for brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images.)

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