“This is a big action movie like Braveheart,” says Matthew McConaughey of Free State of Jones. “It’s epic and its hugely entertaining. At the same time it’s very intimate and true.”
Set in the years before, during and after the American Civil War Free State of Jones is the surprising story of a white man who, with hundreds of runaway slaves, led an armed rebellion against the Confederacy. The hero of the piece is Newton ‘Newt’ Knight, a poor white farmer from southeast Mississippi who declared Jones County, Mississippi free from the controlling hand of the Confederacy. It became known as the ‘Free State of Jones’. It was secession within secession, with Knight claiming his part of the south had never left the union.
A big, sprawling panorama that re-tells a little-known – and extremely contentious – episode in American history, it was drawn from the archives by writer-director Gary Ross, best known in recent years for launching The Hunger Games franchise.
“Gary told me, ‘This is a really important piece of American history. Nobody knows about it. It deserves to be shared and I’m the man to share it’, says McConaughey. “He said the best way to share that was to write that script and make that film. It’s something that he had in his hip pocket for over a decade. He knew it was not going to be an easy one to get made. The success of the first Hunger Games helped and gave him a little leverage. Me coming on board helped.”
Newton Knight joined the Confederacy during the civil war but he didn’t believe in the cause and became a medic. McConaughey takes up the tale.
“I’m not a history buff, not American history nor the civil war. This was my class for a year. I’d never heard of Newton Knight.
“This was a guy who started off defending his own personal freedom as a poor farmer in the south. Then he defended his neighbours’ freedom. During the civil war he fought alongside poor, white, yeoman farmers and African-American runaway slaves. They fought against the confederacy, the war ended and the white farmers went home but he lived in an interracial community.
“The really interesting part came after the war. Everyone thinks that the war was over and Reconstruction was over in 1876 – that there was a big bow on the end of that. Well, there really wasn’t. After the war this man fought for African-American rights until the day he died when he was 94 years old.”
In real-life Knight married a freed slave named Rachel (played in the film by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, star of Belle) and they had several children.
In the late 19th century it was still unheard of to enter into an interracial marriage. But, says McConaughey, Knight was used to breaking boundaries.
“It’s a tough but true – and inspiring – story,” explains McConaughey. “Newt ends up in the swamps and is taken in by this bunch of runaway slaves led by Moses (played by Mahershala Ali). They form a bond of trust with each other. It’s unspoken. They fight alongside each other not just during the war but [also] after. They became like brothers. That would be the best way to explain the relationship.”
A gruelling film that mirrors the look and feel of The Revenant, Free State of Jones is already being touted as a major Oscar contender for 2017 with McConaughey a favourite to pick up a nomination as Best Actor. Ross and the movie are also being spoken of as contenders.
McConaughey enjoyed the process of making the film, growing a scraggly beard and spending much of his time shooting in the swamps where he and Moses come together.
“I know the land and I’m comfortable in the swamps where we set it, [along with] the folklore and everything else,” he smiles.
“We were neck deep in the swamps of Louisiana, so there were tough times in the right way. The great thing about that is that it becomes an adventure for the entire crew, for all the actors.”
He adds: “It’s a luxury if something like this comes across my table as an actor. This story would have worked and should have been made into a movie even if it was fictional. But, boy, when you get something that works as a film and would be entertaining, educational, enlightening and it’s true, that makes it all the more worthwhile.” The filmmakers’ obligation, he stresses, is to the silent majority whose position in society prevents them from being heard. “The poor folks don’t write the history books. They didn’t then and they still don’t. That’s where the term for that war comes from: poor man’s fight, rich man’s war. They fought a rich man’s war.”
Newton Knight lived a long life, dying in 1922. His burial flouted state law that said whites and blacks could not be interred in the same cemetery, and he was buried next to Rachel, who predeceased him in 1889.
“There’s a quote that Gary made early on that stuck with me, which is that Newt is a guy who, once his bell was rung, can’t un-ring it – and damned be the consequences.
“He may have considered them but he would not right a wrong on behalf of the consequences being too tough. Didn’t matter. It didn’t matter how small the task or how great the consequences might be, he couldn’t live with seeing somebody not being treated fairly.
“He didn’t un-ring his bell after he was buried. It kept on ringing through his descendants. The man had a clear understanding of humanity.”
Free State of Jones (15) is on nationwide release.