I realize it’s an act of faith, but here’s what I need you to do: I need you to trust me that you should skip a movie you can see this weekend in favor of a movie you won’t be able to see until October. The movie you’ll have to wait for is Nate Parker’s Sundance sensation The Birth of a Nation, the true story of the slave revolt led by African-American Nat Turner, and told through his eyes. The movie to skip is Gary Ross’s Free State of Jones, the true story of a revolt of slaves and white farmers led by white Newton Knight, and told through his eyes. The year is 2016, people. Why are these stories still being told from the perspectives of sympathetic white people?
There’s a rich history of this sort of thing. From Burn! in 1969 to Glory in 1989 to Amistad in 1997, the common assumption held that on the rare occasions in which mainstream moviemaking interests would back films about the slave experience, the primary narrative arc must not concern a slave, but a white protagonist – and, seemingly, surrogate for the white audience – whose encounters with noble slaves would change him (and it was always a him) from a passive observer to an activist. It’s not exclusive to slavery stories; the “white savior” narrative was also deployed to dramatize the American civil rights struggle (Mississippi Burning, The Help), the South African anti-Apartheid movement (Cry Freedom), and conflicts in Sudan (Machine Gun Preacher) and Sierra Leone (Blood Diamond). And every time, the excuse was the same: that in order to get these expensive films financed, studios had to have the financial insurance of a “name” actor, and the entry point of a white protagonist.
Thankfully, the needle has started moving. 12 Years A Slave, told squarely through the eyes of Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor), was not only a critical smash and Best Picture winner, but a considerable financial success – nearly $200 million worldwide, a huge return on a $20 million budget. That same year, the British slavery story Belle was the sleeper hit of the summer, bringing in $16 million worldwide. And the History Channel’s recent remake of Roots pulled huge ratings for the cable network.
And yet, here we are at the multiplex, partying like it’s 1999 and telling the story of the Civil War, emancipation, Reconstruction, the 15th Amendment, and the rise of the Klan via the growly, heartfelt intimacy of a Matthew McConaughey hero. We first meet Newton Knight in 1862, on the bloody battlefield where he works as a nurse for the Confederate Army – but don’t worry, he carefully refers to slaves as “Negroes” and deserts his regiment because he “don’t own no slaves, ain’t gonna die so they can get rich sellin’ cotton.” Back home in Mississippi, he soon realizes the Rebel collectors (who are terrorizing the area, raiding homes for “donations” to the cause) are coming for him, so he settles in with a group of runaway slaves in a nearby swamp, learning their mysterious ways and customs and teaching them his, including how to properly wield a rifle.
Before long, fellow deserters and poor farmers join Knight’s makeshift army, and as Ross’s vision of a fiddle-and-campfire utopia begins to take shape, the strangest thing happens: the black characters disappear into the background. For a couple of scenes, I strained my eyes to even find any in the frame, and wondered if I’d somehow missed the scene where they left this wild-bearded white man to his devices. But no, Ross eventually remembers they’re there, mainly as targets for the hurled racial slurs he uses to designate the villains among Knight’s ranks. But that’s about all the use Knight (or Ross) has for them, as both the lead and the filmmaker seem to lend the same weight to the struggles of non-slave-owning land-holders as those of slaves (making this, as Pajiba’s Rebecca Pahle notes, the “#AllLivesMatter of Civil War movies”).
Free State of Jones is, on a surface level, perfectly acceptable: handsomely mounted, reasonably well-executed, sensitively acted. But at the service of what? It’s a true story, and interesting one, but true and interesting don’t necessarily equal cinematic – particularly since it doesn’t have an ending, a battle you can see Ross fighting with all the fervor of Knight and his troops, through about the last third of Free State of Jones’ lumpy 139 minutes. So he lands on a particularly baffling solution: the framing device of an anti-miscegenation case concerning one of Knight’s descendants, and the question of whether one of Knight’s children was the offspring of his first or second wife, one white (Keri Russell) and one black (Gugu Mbatha-Raw).
Well, “framing device” is perhaps too generous a description; 45 minutes into the movie, Ross abruptly slaps “85 years later…” on the screen, cuts away to this story for about thirty seconds (as though the projectionist mixed up the reels and accidentally switched us over to a courtroom drama), and then cuts back to the 1860s and forgets about it for another hour. By the picture’s end, the wrap-up of these left-field, semi-hallucinatory interludes is expected to provide some sort of trenchant contemporary connection or something, but it just feels like what it is: a story without a conclusion.
The saddest part is, they glide right past a perfectly acceptable one. When Knight lands in that swamp, he befriends Moses (the excellent Mahershala Ali, from House of Cards and Tremé), who becomes one of his key soldiers; he fights hard, provides moments of inspiration, and late in the picture, after the ratification of the 15th Amendment (in one of its best scenes), Moses embarks on a mission to register black voters, taking his registration book out to the country and pitching the field hands. His journey is as inspiring, if not more so, than Newton’s – and it comes to a real denouement, one that doesn’t require a desperate search through a family tree. But that would’ve required making a slavery movie about a black person, and still, somehow, that’s a bit too much to ask.
Free State of Jones opens Friday.