“Somehow, some way, and some time, everybody is somebody else’s nigger,” is an actual quote that happens around midway through Free State of Jones. Uttered by Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight, a Confederate nurse-turned-deserter-turned-freedom-fighter in defense of one of his black comrades, it’s perhaps the most oblivious remark about race in a film that is remarkable mostly for its astounding oblivion about race. At that point, an hour and change into a narrative slog as thick as the Mississippi swamp where Knight and his diverse buddies hide, it becomes apparent that the film is going nowhere fast.
But to cast Free State of Jones aside as just another bad summer movie might be missing the point. Written and directed by Gary Ross, it’s held back by a slow, disjointed plot that doesn’t quite know what it wants to do, and it betrays no signs of having attempted to develop characters. But with its badness comes a real opportunity for instruction: The film’s ideas about race and its main character Knight are textbook examples of how not to have conversations about white privilege, “allyship,” and black struggle. As such, they invite a closer look.
To say that McConaughey’s portrayal of Newton Knight is a white savior perhaps undersells the trope. After a tragedy sparks his desertion from the Confederate cause, he realizes that his opposition to the Civil War as “a poor man’s fight” is the moral fiber that drives him. A strange jumble of circumstances, unexplained moral convictions, and a touch of deus ex machina find Knight hiding in a matcha-green swamp amongst a group of impossibly trusting escaped slaves. In perhaps the single touch of insightful racial commentary in the film, this band of enslaved folks have all forsaken their birth names in favor of those of Biblical prophets. Their leader, played by House of Cards’s Mahershala Ali, is the underutilized and largely unexplored Moses.