Save for the neo-Confederates, who are taking issue with the depiction of Newton Knight in Free State of Jones, no one can argue that director Gary Ross didn’t do his homework. He has even set up a website, freestateofjones.info, which takes you through the entire movie from beginning to end, generously peppered with citations from various books and letters. The issue is that an accurate movie doesn’t necessarily make a good movie.
Put another way: it’s easy to conflate scrupulous historical accuracy with great filmmaking.
From what I can tell, although I admit to not having scrolled through the entire .info website, and from what the director claims, everything that happened in Free State of Jones actually happened. That includes the boring parts.
There’s a particularly puzzling segment where the Confederates burn down a farm to try to convince Knight’s army to surrender, then Knight burns down some of their farmed resources in retaliation. Then Confederates burn down a farm, and Knight burns down some of their farmed resources in retaliation. While accurate, this repetition of events burns almost 10 minutes in an already over-long runtime and can only be described from a viewer’s perspective as “dull.”
This is the movie I would watch if I skipped an entire semester of a class about this time period – it covers all events, but fails to explore the greater questions surrounding them. While I’d probably do pretty well on the multiple choice, the essay questions would crush me.
A good counterpoint to this film, while an extreme example, is The Social Network. To anyone who was actually involved, the David Fincher film has next-to-nothing to do with the invention of Facebook. Ben Mezrich pitched the movie to Aaron Sorkin while writing his book on the topic, and Sorkin practically finished his screenplay before Mezrich was even done with the book.
This is of course not to mention that Mezrich has already run into accusations of dramatizing history with no meddling from slick move producers required. His book “Bringing Down the House” (later adapted on screen into the Kevin Spacey-starring movie “21”) was eviscerated by almost everyone involved as pure fantasy.
And yet, The Social Network would go on to win three academy awards, including capturing Best Adapted Screenplay. Deservedly so, as The Social Network, without getting too entrenched in what literally happened, was able to craft a meaningful narrative about someone who sacrificed everything to achieve peak success and now has nothing to show for it – and may not deserve anything to show for it.
Which leads me to another point of criticism about historical accuracy – just because something happened doesn’t make it interesting. I can only imagine pitching this movie to producers went something along the lines of “Remember all those slaves who fought and died to procure equal rights during and immediately after the Civil War? This is a movie about the white guy who helped them,” which followed with the talking suits saying “where do I sign?” It’s no surprise to me that the audience with whom I saw this was 100 percent white.
To Ross’ credit, the film does include some such depictions, but they function more as passing glances. There is a character in the movie named Moses Washington, who is introduced as a slave runaway but, after the emancipation proclamation and the 15th Amendment to the U.S. constitution, works tirelessly to get former slaves registered to vote before being castrated and lynched for his efforts.
Ross writes on freestateofjones.info that “The extent to which African Americans were agents in their own emancipation has been too often understated in both historical texts and films,” which is ironic because Moses’ character gets maybe 20 minutes of screen time in a 139-minute movie.
And this character, according to the .info website, is a “fictional invention.” So, the most interesting part of the movie is the least accurate. This character is based on a combined effort of several freedmen who got out the vote, to use more modern terms, and often died trying. Think the depiction of Jessica Chastain’s character in “Zero Dark Thirty,” a not-entirely-accurate mashup of several people, but one who I remember as one of the most interesting of this decade.
Will I remember Free State of Jones that way? Not likely.