When filmmaker and screenwriter Gary Ross initially read the treatment for Free State of Jones in 2006, he knew he had to approach the period piece with a more meticulous eye. The war drama starring Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Keri Russell and Mahershala Ali depicts abolitionist and war strategist Newton Knight, who assembled and led a group of runaway slaves and poor farmers to fight against the Confederacy during Reconstruction.
Ross read avidly and worked closely with 11 historians to bring accuracy to Free State of Jones. “It’s not like they’re writing the script,” says the multiple Academy Award-nominated director behind Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games and The Tale of Despereaux during a chat prior to the Atlanta premiere. “They’re informing and helping me get the academic understanding.”
“This is a very intricate quilt that we’re weaving together to try and understand this is just one story,” continues Ross. “Before I did that, I had to be a student. I had to pause and learn. Once I learned, then I could make a movie.”
Harvard University professor of English and African (American) Studies Dr. John Stauffer created a visiting fellowship especially for Ross. The Los Angeles-born and raised former fisherman and writer responsible for penning screenplays for Big, Mr. Baseball and Dave dedicated two years at the Ivy League institution to get a better understanding of abolitionism, Reconstruction and the African-American experience.
That multi-disciplinary immersion encouraged Ross to grasp onto history before he even began to the write the script. “There’s a responsibility in this,” states Ross, who briefly studied as an undergrad at University of Pennsylvania. “It’s not something you tread glibly. I did a thousand times more work on this than I did with Seabiscuit, which is accessible and fun, but frankly not as crucial a piece of the American narrative as this. I took this seriously and took a lot of time to find out what I’m doing.”
The son of notable screenwriter Arthur A. Ross and recipient of the coveted Writers Guild of America award adds, “It would be impossible of me to tell this story, especially on Reconstruction, without seeing the African-American side of the narrative. There was a no more crucial period in time. That was the crux of the battle. We haven’t been told the truth about that period of time.”
Free State of Jones’ theatrical release is preceded by a detail-oriented website further explaining the nuances, costuming, communities of people, chronological events, primary source materials and geographic areas relating to Reconstruction and Jones County, MS. Using primarily annotations and footnotes, Ross explains that webpage should help the audience understand that Free State of Jones is not just another “slave film” or cinematic experience depicting a “white savior.”
Free State of Jones fictionalizes specific elements that can be supported by fact. Ali’s character, Moses Washington, is not a real figure. He’s an amalgam of a maroon from the swamps and a Union League leader organizing people to vote. Ross conducted ongoing conversations with the cast, imparting to them the historical elements necessary to mold the story.
As an exchange, McConaughey, born and raised in Texas, informed Ross on Southern traditions. Ali, on the other hand, exposed the director to the emotional tools needed to portray a character of color. “This is a conversation that you always have with actors,” shares Ross, a former consultant for Michael Dukakis and Bill Clinton. “That’s a dialogue and collaboration that has to go on.”
“Technically, you become more adroit. Each film you make, you get more experience, nuances and subtleties enter your work. This was such a different experience. To be honest, there was so much learning that had to take place for me to understand it.”
Ross retraces why he decided to create the informative website in relation to the feature film. “The audience has to understand this comes from somewhere,” he proclaims. “Half of my work is putting out the film. This is too important of a piece of history. I wanted people to understand this is based on a really solid foundation and serious work that we did. It’s historically reliable even if I had to fictionalize some incidents.”
Ross adds, “If I’m only putting out the movie and not what’s behind it, then I’m not really giving people an idea of the whole process.”
In no way, shape or form is Free State of Jones a passion project for Ross. It’s a process that has humbled the filmmaker. Working out the process for directing Ocean’s Eight with an all-female cast, Ross aspires for Free State of Jones to shatter myths about an often overlooked chapter in American history despite Hollywood’s objective to obtain gross astronomical box office receipts and merely entertain audiences.
“Freedom was demanded, not granted,” warns Ross. “Until we can investigate what African-American agency was in that era, we’re never gonna really understand it.” Concluding his comments before the screening began, Ross says Free State of Jones is a rebellion film about alliances, interracial cooperation, defiance during the Confederacy and white supremacy that sought out to suppress freedom during Reconstruction.
Ross forewarns that historically-grounded films have to go deeper than visually depicting facts or becoming critically acclaimed successes. Films like Free State of Jones, he says, have bigger responsibilities to viewers and the film industry.
“Don’t try to push your story onto the material,” he advises. “Sadly, no one is saved at the end of the Reconstruction. Once I knew that point, then I could embrace and create the story.”
Free State of Jones opens in theaters nationwide on Jun. 24. Check local listings for showtimes and venues.
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.