Free State of Jones (film)

Free State of Jones is a 2016 American historical period 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.

Free State of Jones
Theatrical release poster
Directed byGary Ross
Produced by
Screenplay byGary Ross
Story by
  • Leonard Hartman
  • Gary Ross
Music byNicholas Britell
CinematographyBenoît Delhomme
Edited by
Distributed bySTX Entertainment
Release date
  • 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[3]

It was released in the United States by STXfilms on June 24, 2016. It received mixed reviews from critics and grossed only $25 million against its $50 million production budget.[3]


The story is based on the history of Jones County, Mississippi during the Civil War and the period immediately after. The overall story follows the history of Jones County, and some of the events portrayed are true.[4][5][6][7][8] 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."[5]


After surviving the 1862 Battle of Corinth and being told of the Twenty Negro Law, Newton Knight, a poor farmer from Jones County serving as a battlefield nurse in the Confederate Army, deserts and returns home to his farm and his wife, Serena, after seeing his nephew Daniel get shot and killed. While there, he befriends Rachel, an enslaved woman who has secretly learned to read.

Newton's disenchantment with the Confederacy grows after finding out that troops were taking crops and livestock for taxes. After helping one family resist such a raid, he is pursued by Confederate agents and bitten by an attack dog. With the help of abolitionist-oriented Aunt Sally and multiple slaves, he escapes to a swamp where some runaway slaves led by Moses Washington tend to his wounds.

After the Siege of Vicksburg, many more rebel soldiers desert, and many of them end up at the swamp, where Newton becomes their captain. The ex-Confederates and runaway slaves form a revolt against the Confederacy. They raid Confederate convoys and capture a piece of southeast Mississippi, organizing it as the "Free State of Jones." Despite getting little help from the Union, they manage to hold out until the end 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 participates in a march of voters to the polls while everyone sings John Brown's Body.

Newton and Rachel have a son, Jason. Since they are unable to legally marry, Newton arranges to deed a parcel of land to her. The story is interspersed with the story of Newton's great-grandson, Davis Knight, who is arrested under Mississippi's miscegenation laws in 1948. Since he is possibly of one-eighth black descent, under Mississippi law at that time he is considered black, and therefore could not legally marry his long-time white sweetheart. He is sentenced to five years in prison, but his conviction is thrown out by the Mississippi Supreme Court in 1949, rather than risk the law being declared unconstitutional.


Actor Matthew McConaughey at 2015 Cannes Film Festival (L), who portrayed anti-Confederate, rebellion leader, Newton Knight (R).



The film was a passion project for Ross who spent ten years developing it. Ross 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, with him giving Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation as examples of "the last movies that did it".[14] 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.[14] Speaking to Slash Film about the research for the film Ross remarked that " I don’t think I did anything but read for a couple of years" [14]

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 thusly 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".[14]

Matthew McConaughey's casting was announced in November 2014 [6] with other casting announcements made in early 2015.[9][10] Angelo Piazza III, Marksville, La. and Jack's Powder Keg Company participated in the production with their cannon and black powder.[15]


Principal photography began on February 23, and was scheduled to end on May 28.[16] 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.[17] In May 2015, shooting was scheduled for Clinton, with East Feliciana Parish as a filming set.[18] 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.[19][20] The first trailer was released on January 9, 2016.[21]


Box office

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.[3]

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.[2] 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

On Rotten Tomatoes, a review aggregator, the film has an approval rating of 46% based on 184 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]

The New York Times selected it as a "critic's pick", and 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."[28]

See also


  1. "FREE STATE OF JONES (15)". British Board of Film Classification. August 30, 2016. Retrieved August 30, 2016.
  2. Lang, Brent (June 22, 2016). "Box Office: 'Independence Day: Resurgence' No Match for 'Finding Dory'". Variety. Penske Business Media. Retrieved June 22, 2016.
  3. "Free State of Jones". Box Office Mojo. IMDb. Retrieved December 10, 2016.
  4. Grant, Richard (March 2016). "The True Story of the 'Free State of Jones'". Smithsonian. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution. Retrieved August 24, 2018.
  5. "Free State of Jones (2016)". History vs Hollywood. CTF Media. Retrieved August 26, 2016.
  6. 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.
  7. LaSalle, Mick (December 30, 2015). "Movies to look for (maybe) in 2016". San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco, California: Hearst Communications. Retrieved August 24, 2018.
  8. McClintock, Pamela (October 22, 2015). "Matthew McConaughey's 'Free State of Jones' Gets New Release Date". The Hollywood Reporter. Los Angeles, California: Eldridge Industries. Retrieved August 24, 2018.
  9. Sneider, Jeff (January 6, 2015). "Gugu Mbatha-Raw to Star Opposite Matthew McConaughey in Gary Ross' 'Free State of Jones' (Exclusive)". TheWrap. Retrieved March 6, 2015.
  10. Sneider, Jeff (February 12, 2015). "Keri Russell, Mahershala Ali Join Matthew McConaughey in 'Free State of Jones' (Exclusive)". TheWrap. Retrieved February 15, 2015.
  11. "Donald Watkins". IMDb. Retrieved August 28, 2016.
  12. "Artrial Clark". IMDb. Retrieved August 28, 2016.
  13. "Wayne Pére". IMDb. Retrieved August 28, 2016.
  14. Giroux, Jack (June 24, 2016). "Interview: Why Gary Ross Spent a Decade Working on 'Free State of Jones'". /Film. Retrieved September 4, 2017.
  15. 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.
  16. Christine (February 26, 2015). "Mathew McConaughey begins filming 'The Free State of Jones' in Louisiana". On Location Vacations. Retrieved February 26, 2015.
  17. Evry, Max (March 9, 2015). "First Look at Matthew McConaughey in The Free State of Jones". Mandatory. Retrieved March 10, 2015.
  18. Warren, Stephanie (March 4, 2015). "Major motion picture to be filmed in Clinton". The Advocate. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  19. Lang, Brent (February 25, 2015). "STX Entertainment Dates Films With Matthew McConaughey, Julia Roberts, Jason Blum". Variety. Penske Business Media. Retrieved March 6, 2015.
  20. 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.
  21. Parker, Ryan (January 9, 2016). "Matthew McConaughey Starrer 'Free State of Jones' Trailer Released". The Hollywood Reporter. Prometheus Global Media. Retrieved August 24, 2018.
  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 January 3, 2019.
  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. Scott, A. O. (June 23, 2016). "Review: Matthew McConaughey Rebels Against Rebels in 'Free State of Jones'". The New York Times. New York City: The New York Times Company. Retrieved August 26, 2016.

Further reading

  • 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.
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