Free State of Jones and the Failure to Progress

By  · Published on June 27th, 2016

How Can the 26-Year-Old Glory Still Run Circles Around a Contemporary Civil War Film?

At the end of an otherwise glowing review of Edward Zwick’s Glory, film critic Roger Ebert took a moment to point out the one issue that had lingered with him throughout the film. “I didn’t understand why it had to be told so often from the point of view of the 54th’s white commanding officer,” Ebert wrote. “Why did we see the black troops through his eyes – instead of seeing him through theirs?” To Ebert, this was proof that there was “another and quite different” film to be made from the real-life story that inspired Glory.

I shudder, then, to think what Ebert would have said about Free State of Jones.

To be fair, there are a handful of ideas in Free State of Jones that probably made it an interesting project on paper. Although the film spends nearly ninety minutes rehashing every war trope it can get its hands on, in its final third – when Confederate deserter Newton Knight and former slave Moses are focused on the reconstruction of the local democracy – Free State of Jones offers a glimpse of American history rarely seen before on the screen. Of course the war did not end all acts of violence against emancipated slaves, but the film takes a cold, hard look at the legal machinations and vigilante justice that helped maintain the horrible status quo. Just as the film should be moving into its triumphant final act, it grinds to a halt, showing that Knight’s rebellion only served to reposition black families and abolitionists outside of population centers. It may be a bit of a momentum killer but it’s also the closest Free State of Jones ever gets to saying something truly unique.

And that’s what makes the film so frustrating. Free State of Jones follows Glory by almost thirty years and has been privy to years of discussion about onscreen representation and how white audiences perceive black narratives. It comes on the heels of #BlackLivesMatter and benefits from the commercial and critical popularity of movies like 12 Years a Slave. It has one of our great modern leading men in a part he was (quite frankly) born to play and gives the very talented Gugu Mbatha-Raw her biggest starring role since 2013’s Belle. And despite all of this, it has less to say about civil rights and institutionalized racism than a movie shot when Matthew Broderick was still considered a believable action star.

Since we’re being fair, that doesn’t mean Glory never falls short of the mark. Too much of the story is focused on Broderick’s Robert Shaw and his second-in-command Cabot Forbes and the challenges they face in assuming command of a black company of soldiers. At times, Shaw’s desire to lead his men into battle feels less like a rallying cry for abolitionists and more like a misguided attempt to prove his manhood to those back home. Too often, too, the film looks to Shaw to deliver a key moment of resistance against the injustices of institutionalized racism. When Denzel Washington’s Private Trip encourages his men to reject their unfair pay rate and tear up their salary card, the film waits until Shaw has followed his men’s lead to treat the moment as a triumph. Having Morgan Freeman’s John Rawlins lead a cheer for Colonel Shaw is just the icing on the cake of the film’s miscalculated moment.

Despite this, Glory succeeds where Free State of Jones fails in one very important way: it passes the DuVernay test. A few months ago, New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote about the breakthrough Sundance hit Birth of a Nation and suggested that the popular “Bechdel Test” needed to be updated to reflect racial differences as well as gender differences. The best movies at Sundance pass “what might be called the DuVernay test,” Dargis wrote, “in which African-Americans and other minorities have fully realized lives rather than serve as scenery in white stories.” The group of enlisted men at the heart of Glory — played by Washington, Freeman, Jihmi Kennedy, and an impossibly young Andre Braugher – are each given their own fears to overcome and form a friendship that has nothing to do with Shaw or any other white officer. Their reasons to fight belong to them alone, and even in the film’s climactic final moments – when Trip leads a doomed last charge while carrying the American flag, a responsibility he had previously rejected as well as any appeal to his patriotism – the men are seen to draw on each other for strength.

This is not the case in Free State of Jones. Most of the film’s major moments are funneled through Newton Knight; even when the black community is ostracized in their attempt to unionize, it is Knight who counsels Mahershala Ali’s Moses, Knight who speaks at the event to rally the men, and Knight who leads a group of men to city hall to vote. Free State of Jones may understand the major beats of the civil rights movement and even do its best show black characters taking history into their own hands, but the fact that these characters – if they are given a name at all – can only communicate their hopes and dreams to sympathetic white faces means that Free State of Jones fails to hit even the bare minimum set by its predecessors. Glory was written by a white screenwriter, a screenwriter whose biggest film credit to date had been Rambo: First Blood Part II, and even he knew enough to let the black characters in the film tell their own story.

The Racist Debate Behind Free State of Jones

Look, the underlying point in all of this is the idea of progress. We tend to evaluate all films that tackle social issues on a simple pass/fail basis. The films that do a good job with representation get a pass; the ones that fall back on tired white savior tropes get a fail. It’s important to remember, too, that progress operates less like a light switch and more like a dimmer. The better we handle issues of representation on screen, the brighter the future gets for us all. And while Free State of Jones might have its heart in the right place most of the time, it is tough to place it side-by-side with a thirty-year-old Civil War film and see any meaningful progress. As Roger Ebert might say, I suspect there is another and quite different films to be made about the Newton Knight rebellion and the former slaves that took arms for independence. Here’s hoping the next one shines just a little bit more light on the dark parts of our history.

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)