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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

On Race, Religion, the White Male Gaze, and FREE STATE OF JONES

You've probably already heard the news by now: FREE STATE OF JONES has become the mascot for all white savior movies for the rest of time. So, no need for me to dwell on that in this post. But yes, it's over the top and serves as another reminder from Hollywood that if it wasn't for white people, black people all over the country would still be enslaved. Thanks, Hollywood, you're nothing if not predictable.

But there is something particularly interesting to watch in this film, something that is virtually absent in other films set during the Civil War in Mississippi: its biblical messaging. Beyond its persistent need to tell us how courageous, heroic and color blind real-life dissenter Newton Knight (played by Matthew McConaughey) was, it does manage to depict how symbolic the Bible was in the mourning of black lives lost, churches burned, and the everyday survival of dissenters and black people at a time when both were considered expendable. It kept them from giving up, giving in, and gave them faith when it was nearly depleted. Which, in turn, made black churches targets for the KKK and other white supremacist groups--and still does to this day.

So, kudos to writer/director Gary Ross for keeping that theme important throughout, though that's not the focus of the film. He aims to present the older narrative through the 1940s miscegenation trial of Davis Knight, great-grandson of Newton and Rachel Knight, a former slave with whom Newton had a long-term relationship. Davis was charged with marrying a white woman. But Ross ends up overextending himself by shifting between the two narratives--the more contemporary one serving zero purpose, however, to the main story, and bringing down its quality.

In fact, it's hard to determine what Ross is trying to say here. It's partly about the dissenters of the Confederate Army, known as the Knight Company (led by Newton)--a virtually unexplored history in the cinematic canon. It's also about Newton's relationships with freed black people, with whom he fought against the Confederate soldiers, his romantic interests--including his wife (played by Keri Russell) and Rachel (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw)--as well as his faith. All of that, however, at the expense of thinner storylines that could have been better fleshed out--like that time Serena and her son (with Newton) came to live with Newton and Rachel (and their son) together in one house like that's totally appropriate and not awkward. And the parallel of the modern narrative to the older narrative remains a mystery.

All this to say, the very concept of race in FREE STATE OF JONES is told through a skewed, white sympathetic lens, punctuated by Rachel commenting on her newborn son's nose and asking whether he looks black or white, and Newton buying back the 12-year-old son of Moses (played by Mahershala Ali) from his white masters.

While all the performances are solid, there's too much of a distance from the setting of the story to truly create an immersive experience between the audience and the film. Newton's perspective eclipses the entire film, advancing the white male savior gaze--which is oppressive at times. His omnipresence in almost every scene further perpetuates the idea that black freedom lays squarely in the hands of a heroic white man. The film would have been more aptly presented as a biopic on Knight himself, which would have illuminated the narrative Ross is ultimately telling more effectively.

Rating: C 


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