Free State of Jones (film)

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Free State of Jones
A bearded man holding a rifle across his shoulders
Theatrical release poster
Directed byGary Ross
Screenplay byGary Ross
Story by
  • Leonard Hartman
  • Gary Ross
Produced by
CinematographyBenoît Delhomme
Edited by
Music byNicholas Britell
Distributed bySTX Entertainment
Release dates
  • June 16, 2016 (2016-06-16) (Atlanta)
  • June 24, 2016 (2016-06-24) (United States)
Running time
140 minutes[1]
CountryUnited States
Budget$50 million[2]
Box office$25 million[2]

Free State of Jones is a 2016 American historical war film inspired by the life of Newton Knight and his armed revolt against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi, throughout the American Civil War. Written and directed by Gary Ross, the film stars Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Mahershala Ali, and Keri Russell.

It was released in the United States by STXfilms on June 24, 2016. It received mixed reviews from critics and grossed $25 million against its $50 million production budget.[2]


The story is based on the history of Jones County, Mississippi, during the Civil War and the period immediately after it. The overall story follows the history of Jones County; some of the events portrayed are true.[3][4][5][6][7] The film is credited as being "based on the books The Free State of Jones by Victoria E. Bynum and The State of Jones by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer."[4]


After surviving the Second Battle of Corinth and being told of the Twenty Negro Law that allows wealthy men to avoid being conscripted into military service, Newton Knight, a battlefield medic in the Confederate Army, deserts after his nephew Daniel is forced into military service, only to be mortally wounded and then denied medical care while the officers are tended to first. Upon returning home, Knight buries Daniel and reconnects with his wife, Serena. He befriends Rachel, an enslaved woman who has secretly learned to read, after she treats his infant son's illness.

Newton's disenchantment with the Confederacy grows after he learns that Confederate troops have been seizing crops, livestock, and draft animals from his neighbors, even though most are already struggling to feed their families. Newton threatens a Confederate officer, Barbour, at gunpoint; when Confederate militiamen are ordered to arrest him for treason, Newton is bitten by one of their attack dogs while trying to escape. Abolitionist-oriented Aunt Sally, a sympathetic community leader, has her servant George take him into the swamps, where he is put under the protection of runaway slave Moses Washington and his followers.

After the fall of Vicksburg, Confederate deserters flock into Jones County. Newton persuades his neighbors to provide him with weapons and organizes the deserters and slaves into a well-disciplined militia. When the rebels begin ambushing military convoys to take back their property, Barbour and his commanding officer, Col. Hood, order their farms to be torched. Serena is forced to flee with her son as Newton cannot protect them. Hood offers pardons to any rebel who agrees to rejoin the army, but when some of Newton's men abandon him and ask to be pardoned, Hood goes back on his word and sentences them to be hanged.

The rebels, appearing to accept defeat, persuade Hood to let them hold a funeral for the deceased under military guard. Suddenly, marksmen hidden under the church and in the coffins fire on the soldiers as the mourners take pistols from their coats and join in. The soldiers are all killed, and Newton strangles Hood to death with his belt. Barbour escapes, but he and the remaining troops in the county are driven out by the rebels, who declare the establishment of the "Free State of Jones". Swearing allegiance to the United States, the rebels manage to defend their territory against Confederate reinforcements for the remainder of the war.

Newton continues to fight racial inequality after the war. He helps free Moses' son from an "apprenticeship" to Rachel's former master. After Moses is lynched while registering freedmen to vote, Newton is seen participating in a march of voters to the polls while they sing "John Brown's Body". He eventually reconciles with Serena and has a son with Rachel. Since they are unable to legally marry, Newton arranges for Rachel to be deeded a parcel of his land for farming upon his death.

The film ends with Newton's great-grandson, Davis Knight, being arrested under Mississippi's anti-miscegenation laws in 1948. Since he has an eighth of black ancestry, the law considers him to be black, and he therefore cannot legally marry his long-time white sweetheart. He is sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to leave the state, but his conviction is thrown out by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1949, rather than risk the law being declared unconstitutional in light of the emerging civil rights movement.


Actor Matthew McConaughey (left, pictured in 2019) portrays anti-Confederate rebellion leader Newton Knight (right).



The film was a passion project for Ross, who spent ten years developing it. He was initially drawn to make the movie out of a desire to examine the Reconstruction era south, an era that, according to him, is poorly represented in film, quoting Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation as examples of "the last movies that did it".[13] In preparation, Ross did a "tremendous amount of research", studying not only the Civil War but also the historiography of the war, the latter because he wanted "to debunk a lot of the myths" surrounding the events.[13] Speaking to Slash Film about the research for the film, Ross remarked, "I don’t think I did anything but read for a couple of years".[13]

Ross finished writing the film prior to working on The Hunger Games, although he struggled to find much in way of financing: he felt that working on The Hunger Games would help him, and thus declined to work on the sequels. Afterwards he still had trouble getting the movie made, which he attributes to the fact that "we're in a different kind of a popcorn universe now".[13]

Matthew McConaughey's casting was announced in November 2014.[5] Other casting was announced in early 2015.[8][9] Angelo Piazza III, Marksville, La. and Jack's Powder Keg Company participated in the production with their cannon and black powder.[14]


Principal photography began on February 23, and was scheduled to end on May 28.[15] On March 9 Adam Fogelson, Chairman of STX Entertainment announced the start of the production in and around New Orleans, with the release of a first look photo.[16] In May 2015, shooting was scheduled for Clinton, with East Feliciana Parish as a filming set.[17] On May 25, 2015, some filming took place at Chicot State Park near Ville Platte, Louisiana.


The film was pushed back from its original release date of March 11, 2016, to May 13 and finally June 24, 2016.[18][19] The first trailer was released on January 9, 2016.[20]


Box office[edit]

Free State of Jones grossed $20.8 million in North America and $4.2 million in other territories for a worldwide total of $25 million, against a production budget of $50 million.[2]

The film was released in the United States and Canada on June 24, 2016, alongside Independence Day: Resurgence and The Shallows and was projected to gross around $10 million in its opening weekend from 2,815 theaters.[21] The film grossed $365,000 from its Thursday previews and $2.7 million on its first day.[22] In its opening weekend the film grossed $7.6 million, finishing 6th at the box office behind Finding Dory ($73 million), Independence Day: Resurgence ($41 million), Central Intelligence ($18.2 million), The Shallows ($16.8 million) and The Conjuring 2 ($7.7 million).[23]

Critical response[edit]

On Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, the film has an approval rating of 47% based on 194 reviews and an average rating of 5.5/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Free State of Jones has the noblest of intentions, but they aren't enough to make up for its stilted treatment of a fascinating real-life story."[24] On Metacritic, the film has a score of 53 out of 100 based on reviews from 38 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".[25] Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A−" on an A+ to F scale.[26][27]

Film critic Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post said, "[Director] Ross has insisted that he didn't want 'Free State of Jones' to become another white savior movie, but that's precisely what it is, especially during scenes when the murderous injustice of slavery is refracted through Knight’s frustrated tears." Hornaday said the film could have avoided the trope by focusing more on Knight's alliance with a former slave or his relationships with his wife and an enslaved house servant.[28] The Atlantic's Vann R. Newkirk II said, "To say that McConaughey's portrayal of Newton Knight is a white savior perhaps undersells the trope... A better film would have muddled the clean white-savior narrative with an actual exploration of what the racial politics of a mixed-race insurgency in the South might have been like."[29]

The New York Times selected it as a "critic's pick". Reviewer A. O. Scott called it "a neglected and fascinating chapter in American history" and said it used "the tools of Hollywood spectacle to restore a measure of clarity to our understanding of the war and its aftermath."[30] Scott also said, "...while Mr. Ross's story makes Newton unambiguously heroic, this is not yet another film about a white savior sacrificing himself on behalf of the darker-skinned oppressed. Nor for that matter is it the story of a white sinner redeemed by the superhuman selflessness of black people. Free State of Jones is a rarer thing: a film that tries to strike sparks of political insight from a well-worn genre template."[31]

The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody gave it a positive review, saying, "It's tempting to shunt Free State of Jones into the familiar genre of the white-savior tale, but Newton Knight appears as something else—not so much as a savior but as an avatar of a new South. By seeing his own interests clearly and considering the economic and social structure of his locale and his nation insightfully, he's able to transcend heritage and history and to forge a community, both during and after the war, that will be fair, inclusive, and—yes—post-racial."[32]


  • Beautiful Dreamer - Written by Stephen Foster
  • Piney Woods Swamp - Performed by Nicholas Britell, Tim Fain, Shawn Conley & Shawn Pelton
  • Napoleon Crossing the Rhine - Traditional
  • What Must Be Done - Written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
  • Battle Cry of Freedom - Written by George Frederick Root
  • Rodney Prepares For Fight - Composed by Dickon Hinchliffe
  • I'm Crying - Written and Performed by Lucinda Williams
  • Battle of Corinth - Composed by Nicholas Britell
  • Taking Daniel Home - Performed by Nicholas Britell, Tim Fain & Rob Moose
  • They Took Everything - Composed by Nicholas Britell
  • Finding Home (uncredited) - Performed by Nicholas Britell, Tim Fain & Rob Moose
  • Soldier's Joy - Traditional
  • July 1863 / Loyalty Oath - Composed by Nicholas Britell
  • Perfect Charity - Composed by Nicholas Britell
  • "Resistance' - Performed by Nicholas Britell, Tim Fain, Shawn Conley & Shawn Pelton
  • The Letter - Performed by Nicholas Britell, Tim Fain & Rob Moose
  • Let There Be Light - Composed by Nicholas Britell
  • Hanging the Deserters - Performed by Nicholas Britell, Tim Fain & Rob Moose
  • Killing the Colonel - Composed by Nicholas Britell
  • I'm Crying - Written by Lucinda Williams
  • Reconstruction - Performed by Nicholas Britell, Tim Fain & Rob Moose
  • Voter Suppression - Performed by Nicholas Britell
  • John Madison Knight - Composed by Nicholas Britell
  • Postlude - Performed by Nicholas Britell
  • The Free State of Jones - Performed by Nicholas Britell, Tim Fain & Caitlin Sullivan
Source: media notes[33]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "FREE STATE OF JONES (15)". British Board of Film Classification. August 30, 2016. Retrieved August 30, 2016.
  2. ^ a b c d "Free State of Jones". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved December 10, 2016.
  3. ^ Grant, Richard (March 2016). "The True Story of the 'Free State of Jones'". Smithsonian. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved August 24, 2018.
  4. ^ a b "Free State of Jones (2016)". History vs Hollywood. CTF Media. Retrieved August 26, 2016.
  5. ^ a b c d Fleming, Mike Jr.; Busch, Anita (November 5, 2014). "Matthew McConaughey & Gary Ross Mount Civil War Saga; Bob Simonds' STX In Talks To Finance". Deadline Hollywood. Penske Business Media. Retrieved March 6, 2015.
  6. ^ LaSalle, Mick (December 30, 2015). "Movies to look for (maybe) in 2016". San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, California: Hearst Communications. Retrieved August 24, 2018.
  7. ^ McClintock, Pamela (October 22, 2015). "Matthew McConaughey's 'Free State of Jones' Gets New Release Date". The Hollywood Reporter. Los Angeles: Eldridge Industries. Retrieved August 24, 2018.
  8. ^ a b Sneider, Jeff (January 6, 2015). "Gugu Mbatha-Raw to Star Opposite Matthew McConaughey in Gary Ross' 'Free State of Jones'". TheWrap. Retrieved March 6, 2015.
  9. ^ a b c Sneider, Jeff (February 12, 2015). "Keri Russell, Mahershala Ali Join Matthew McConaughey in 'Free State of Jones' (Exclusive)". TheWrap. Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  10. ^ "Donald Watkins". IMDb. Retrieved August 28, 2016.
  11. ^ "Artrial Clark". IMDb. Retrieved August 28, 2016.
  12. ^ "Wayne Pére". IMDb. Retrieved August 28, 2016.
  13. ^ a b c d Giroux, Jack (June 24, 2016). "Interview: Why Gary Ross Spent a Decade Working on 'Free State of Jones'". /Film. Retrieved September 4, 2017.
  14. ^ Daye, Raymond L. (May 30, 2016). "Local Civil War re-enactors involved in summer film projects". Bunkie Record. Surf New Media. Archived from the original on November 22, 2016. Retrieved February 25, 2017.
  15. ^ Christine (February 26, 2015). "Mathew McConaughey begins filming 'The Free State of Jones' in Louisiana". On Location Vacations. Retrieved February 26, 2015.
  16. ^ Evry, Max (March 9, 2015). "First Look at Matthew McConaughey in The Free State of Jones". Mandatory. Retrieved March 10, 2015.
  17. ^ Warren, Stephanie (March 4, 2015). "Major motion picture to be filmed in Clinton". The Advocate. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  18. ^ Lang, Brent (February 25, 2015). "STX Entertainment Dates Films With Matthew McConaughey, Julia Roberts, Jason Blum". Variety. Penske Business Media. Retrieved March 6, 2015.
  19. ^ McClintock, Pamela (March 9, 2015). "Matthew McConaughey's 'Free State of Jones' Goes Up Against 'Independence Day: Resurgence'". The Hollywood Reporter. Prometheus Global Media. Retrieved March 9, 2015.
  20. ^ Parker, Ryan (January 9, 2016). "Matthew McConaughey Starrer 'Free State of Jones' Trailer Released". The Hollywood Reporter. Prometheus Global Media. Retrieved August 24, 2018.
  21. ^ Lang, Brent (June 22, 2016). "Box Office: 'Independence Day: Resurgence' No Match for 'Finding Dory'". Variety. Penske Business Media. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  22. ^ D'Alessandro, Anthony (June 26, 2016). "'Dory' Swallows 'Resurgence'; 'Shallows' Rides $16M Wave; 'Free State Of Jones' & 'Neon Demon' Wounded". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
  23. ^ "Weekend Box Office Results for June 24–26, 2016". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved June 28, 2016.
  24. ^ "Free State of Jones (2016)". Rotten Tomatoes. Los Angeles, California: Fandango Media. Retrieved March 11, 2023.
  25. ^ "Free State of Jones Reviews". Metacritic. Los Angeles, California: CBS Interactive. Retrieved March 6, 2018.
  26. ^ "Free State of Jones". CinemaScore. Retrieved August 24, 2018.
  27. ^ Brevet, Brad (June 23, 2016). "'Independence Day', 'Shallows' & 'Free State of Jones' Must Contend with 'Finding Dory'". Box Office Mojo. Seattle, Washington: IMDb. Retrieved August 24, 2018.
  28. ^ Hornaday, Ann (June 23, 2016). "'Free State of Jones' reveals a little-known chapter of Civil War history". The Washington Post. Retrieved June 24, 2016. In interviews, Ross has insisted that he didn't want 'Free State of Jones' to become another white savior movie, but that's precisely what it is, especially during scenes when the murderous injustice of slavery is refracted through Knight's frustrated tears.
  29. ^ Newkirk II, Vann R. (June 28, 2016). "The Faux-Enlightened Free State of Jones". The Atlantic. Retrieved October 2, 2018.
  30. ^ Scott, A. O. (June 23, 2016). "Review: Matthew McConaughey Rebels Against Rebels in 'Free State of Jones'". The New York Times. New York City. Retrieved August 26, 2016.
  31. ^ Scott, A. O. (June 23, 2016). "Review: Matthew McConaughey Rebels Against Rebels in 'Free State of Jones'". The New York Times. Retrieved October 2, 2018.
  32. ^ Brody, Richard (June 23, 2016). "The Historical Imagination and Free State of Jones". The New Yorker. Retrieved October 2, 2018.
  33. ^ Britell, Nicholas; Williams, Lucinda (2016). Free State of Jones: original motion picture soundtrack (Media notes). New York: STX Recording.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bynum, Vikki E. (2016). The Free State of Jones: Mississippi's Longest Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. ISBN 9781469627052.
  • Downing, David C. (2007). A South Divided: Portraits of Dissent in the Confederacy. Nashville: Cumberland House. ISBN 9781581825879.

External links[edit]