Rebel with a cause

139 min. | R

Based on a fascinating, little-known episode of American history, this ambitious, well-researched movie trips over its own feet while translating a dramatic tale, leaving little but Matthew McConaughey’s performance and lovely cinematography to stir viewers’ interests.

McConaughey plays Newton Knight, a medic for the Confederacy during the Civil War, who deserts and returns home to Jones County, Mississippi. He believes the war is being fought for the benefit of rich, white men, and he’s no longer willing to die to protect their cotton. Once home, he finds his and his neighbors’ farms being pillaged by Confederate tax collectors. He teaches the womenfolk and children to shoot rifles and stand their ground, but soon his life is threatened. He leaves his wife and son, and heads for the swamps.

There, Knight meets Moses, the leader of a ragtag group of escaped slaves. They acquire guns, and Knight proves to be a natural leader and savvy guerrilla fighter. More white soldiers escape the Confederacy after the fall of Vicksburg and join this mixed-race group of renegades, who manage to hold three neighboring counties under their control by the spring of 1864, an area they declare the Free State of Jones, where “every man is a man.” Knight also comes under the spell of Rachel, a slave who helps the renegades. Following the war, he lives with Rachel in a common-law marriage, and they have several children. Curiously, his first wife Serena (to whom he’s still technically married) also lives on his and Rachel’s land, where she helps raise his children.

The film suggests Knight’s greatest crime was marrying a black woman. In a clunky attempt to modernize Knight’s historic tale, re-creations of a 1948 courtroom trial are inserted into the 1860s action. Davis Knight, a white-skinned descendant of Knight, is on trial for marrying a white woman when it can be proven that he has at least one-eighth Negro blood. It’s distracting at first, then builds to a climax that overshadows the Civil War-era story. It’s a creative narrative strategy, but doesn’t work as a rough-and-tumble account of life in rural Mississippi during Reconstruction.

The film would benefit from character development. Knight’s the only character we connect with. That’s a shame because this compelling episode of American defiance is so much richer than that.