Matthew McConaughey battles slavery in his new film Free State of Jones

A US slavery film’s true story came as a surprise to most Americans
Matthew McConaughey stars in Free State of Jones.
Matthew McConaughey stars in Free State of Jones.

The United States' history with slavery and the degree to which it informs contemporary American life has rarely been reflected in the country's popular culture. Even despite a recent push for more minority voices in mainstream entertainment, slavery and the American Civil War remain relatively unexplored, topics too emotive to tackle for even the boldest film-makers.

It would be heartening to think the multi-Oscar-winning success of 12 Years a Slave in 2014 marked a turning point in this regard, but since then there's only been a small uptake in similarly-themed films, represented this year by the hotly-anticipated slave uprising drama Birth of a Nation and the new Matthew McConaughey film, Free State of Jones, which opens in New Zealand next week.

"It's funny," says Oscar-nominated writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games), "it was a lot easier for us to deal with Vietnam, even 10 years later, than it has been for us to deal with the Civil War.

This is kind of the beating heart at the centre of our history, and it's something that we need to deal with."

Ross' latest film does just that, bringing to life the true story of Newton Knight, portrayed by Oscar-winner McConaughey. Knight was a farmer who deserted from the Confederate army and led a rebellion against the ruling southerners in Jones County, Mississippi, towards the end of the Civil War.

"He had a very simple moral code," McConaughey says, of Knight. "If he saw a wrong, he could not ignore it, I don't think it was in his DNA. He had to do something about it, damn the consequences. And the consequences were very high for him, for a long time."
Although the legend of Knight lives on in Mississippi, McConaughey admits to being unaware of the man before the project was proposed.

Matthew McConaughey and Mahershala Ali in Free State of Jones.
Matthew McConaughey and Mahershala Ali in Free State of Jones.

"I didn't know many people who did know this story," he says. "Maybe the first question people are having after they see this is 'How have we never heard about this? Why was this never taught?' One of the biggest reasons I came on board was that this is a very important piece of American history that does deserve to be told and I'd love to be a part of sharing it."

Hollywood's enduring reluctance to properly address this part of history, and the simplistic nature by which it has done so in the past, motivated Ross to make the film.

"I think one of the things that this film does do that is important is it shows that no sooner was the Civil War over than instead of freedom being attained, there was an attempt at re-instituting the plantation system and freedom had to be fought for all over again," says Ross. "That's a period in American history that many people don't know."

There remains debate about whether or not Knight really deserves to be remembered as a hero, something McConaughey faced while researching the role.

"I took a two-week road trip down south," he says. "I visited a lot of Civil War sites, talked to different historians, went to Ellisville and met a lot of Newt's descendants.

"You got to hear facts but you also got to hear folklore. Now, sometimes it is not necessarily the factual truth, but it can expose a greater truth about who Newt was. Some people thought he was an absolute hero, some people thought he was a bandit."

In promoting a film about America's political history, Ross has naturally faced questions about how the story told in Free State of Jones relates to America's current political quagmire. But he isn't having it.

"I think it disserves the topic to try to draw specific analogies to this particular moment," says Ross. "I understand it makes good news and good copy but I don't want the work I've done — to try to bring to light a period of American history that has been lost, that needs to be recovered, that needs to be known by Americans to understand the continuum of their history — to be sacrificed to the Sturm und Drang [storm and stress] of the election cycle."

"On that note," adds McConaughey. "I'll just say that freedom is something that had been a worthy fight long before the Civil War and it continues to be now and will continue to be.

"I think we'll always be in some form of process on that. I don't know that we're ever gonna get to a spot where everything's absolutely balanced. I don't know that we have that capacity."


Lowdown

Who: Matthew McConaughey
What: Stars in Free State of Jones
When: In cinemas from Thursday

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