Free State of Jones

By: Kevin Jordan

I love history.

I am a huge American Civil War buff.  Everything about it fascinates me from the battles to the politics to the logistics to the economics to the before and after.  I’ve read books, seen movies, watched documentaries, and visited many battlefields and memorials.  I even own a Civil War chess set, though I’ve never taken part in a reenactment because that’s just crazy.  After nearly three decades of digesting information, my interest hasn’t waned because I keep learning things about the time that I had never even heard of.  Case in point – apprenticeship.  Right after the War ended, southern states started passing laws known as Black Codes, including one called apprenticeship.  Here’s the text from the Mississippi version:

“…It shall be the duty of all sheriffs, justices of the peace, and other civil officers of the several counties in this State, to report to the probate courts of their respective counties semiannually, at the January and July terms of said courts, all freedmen, free negroes, and mulattoes, under the age of eighteen, in their respective counties, beats, or districts, who are orphans, or whose parent or parents have not the means or who refuse to provide for and support said minors; and thereupon it shall be the duty of said probate court to order the clerk of said court to apprentice said minors to some competent and suitable person on such terms as the court may direct, having a particular care to the interest of said minor: Provided, that the former owner of said minors shall have the preference when, in the opinion of the court, he or she shall be a suitable person for that purpose.

…In the management and control of said apprentice, said master or mistress shall have the power to inflict such moderate corporal chastisement as a father or guardian is allowed to inflict on his or her child or ward at common law: Provided, that in no case shall cruel or inhuman punishment be inflicted….”

What that says in layman’s terms is that black children could be taken from their parents and given to white families to work on their plantations as “apprentices,” as long as they provided very basic education and services to the children, under the guise and judgement of white “authorities.”  These laws didn’t last long, legally speaking, as Congress invalidated the laws in 1866.  My point is that I learned something from Free State of Jones and that wasn’t the only thing I learned.

The main thing to be learned from this film, historically speaking, is that a white Mississippi man named Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) deserted from the Confederate Army because he didn’t want to die for a rich man’s cotton, ended up gathering a few hundred people into an army that fought against the Confederates, and held a section of Mississippi during the latter part of the war.  Given Hollywood’s proclivity for embellishing and spinning truth, we should all go read actual books about Knight and the events depicted in the film to get the truth of the details, but the basic story is indeed true, as are many of the details.  From apprenticeships to the Confederate army stealing from its own people under the pretense of supporting the troops (not the rich Southern people, which is a major point of contention with the not rich Knight and his not rich neighbors) to granting voting rights to freedmen (freed slaves) to the beginnings of the Ku Klux Klan murdering freedmen who try to exercise those rights, it’s a history lesson in full living color that you probably never got, but badly need.

(Here’s a good place to start with your own research –

Which brings me to the other thing to be learned from this film (this is where I get on my soapbox for a moment) – we still have a long way to go with regards to not hating people simply because they are slightly different.  It’s impossible to watch this movie and not see the parallels to our current political and societal atmosphere, which is toxic at best.  A chunk of our population is still trying to deny others equal rights and status.  A chunk of our population still thinks it’s okay to be racist, sexist, and act like assholes to other people.  A chunk of our population continues to rationalize hatred like that for no reasons other than selfishness, unwarranted fear, and delusions of superiority.  And it’s still happening because nearly all of our current political leaders (and I mean both major parties here) are spineless, corrupt, power-hungry individuals who forgot they work for all of us and not just the people that give them money.  **Deep breath**  This film reminds us that, as great as our country can be, we should never forget how horrendous we’ve been at times.

(Getting off soapbox now.)

The one major flaw with the movie is that it tries to intertwine a court case from 1948 involving the Knight family.  Long story short – Mississippi wanted to invalidate a marriage between Davis Knight and a white woman because Davis’ lineage traces back to Newton and his second wife, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who was black (Mississippi initially won the case, but it was overturned on appeal and Davis was declared white.  Yes, it’s as stupid as it sounds and, yes, that happened in America less than seventy years ago).  Anyway, throughout the film, we catch glimpses of this trial and it does more harm to the flow of the movie than help.  I get the point (eighty years later and the Knight family was still fighting deeply rooted racism), but it simply doesn’t work with the 1860’s portion of the film.  All it really does it remove you from the main story every time you are just getting back into it.  It almost felt tacked on in post-production rather than a fleshed out chunk of the narrative (an easy fix would have been to show us half the trial at the start of the movie, then the rest of the trial at the end so as not to disengage the viewer during the Newton night story).

The other noticeable issue with the movie is the amount of time spent after the war is over.  The bulk of the movie focuses on the Jones’ folk fighting the Confederates, specifically Colonel Lowry (Wayne Père) and his regiment, over the course of three years.  Once this conflict is resolved, the next ten years are crammed into the last twenty-five minutes or so of a 140-minute movie and the theme turns full tilt to equal black rights.  That would have worked if the bulk of the film focused on black rights, but Newton’s initial fight is much more concerned with the treatment of non-rich people in general than the treatment of blacks.

Even with those two issues, the movie is quite good and doesn’t try to overdramatize the carnage of the war or murder of blacks for the sake of gratuity.  It felt like a good balance of history and Hollywood drama and never loses sight of its main goal of teaching us some things we didn’t already know about that time.  As I said in my review of Selma, this is the way history should be taught.  If it doesn’t make you a little (or a lot) uncomfortable and cause you to rethink our current state, it’s not doing it right.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back, but do ask that this movie accompany Selma in our kids’ classrooms.  It’s that important.

Central Intelligence

By: Kevin Jordan

Is it?

We all find some comedians funny and others not so much.  Personally, I don’t find comedians funny whose main shtick is yelling/screaming at the audience.  Sam Kinison, Chris Tucker, Gilbert Gottfried, and Kevin Hart are examples of guys who find it necessary to scream their humor at people and if their jokes are actually funny, I wouldn’t know because I’m bleeding from the ears.  So, you can probably guess at my preconceived opinion of Central Intelligence, starring Kevin Hart (and Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock).

Judging by the audience’s reaction to the film, we were watching a comedy classic unfold before our eyes.  Listening to comments after the movie, I realized that I’m probably going to be in the minority on this movie – people who did not think it was a particularly good or funny movie.  And that’s okay because sometimes movies, no matter how good or bad, can sometimes just rub a person the wrong way.  In other words, this movie chaffed the hell out of me.  Surprisingly, it had very little to do with Kevin Hart, though he did spend a fair amount of the movie screaming.

I may have liked the movie better had it not started off the way it did.  Flashback to 1996 where Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner (Hart) is giving a speech at a senior pep rally.  You read that right and to make it goofier, he’s also a track star, football star, drama star, valedictorian, and other accolades.  Meanwhile, Robbie Weirdick (Johnson in a CGI fat suit and, yes, that’s his character’s actual name at first – he changes it to Bob Stone after that) is showering in the locker room when five kids decide to execute their senior prank – by throwing Robbie into the middle of the gym floor during the pep rally, still naked and wet.  As hilarious as assault and a sex crime sounds, it’s made worse by the reaction that follows.  The pranksters don’t run away after their toss, the entire senior class is laughing uproariously, and the principal just stands there, not reacting at all.  Calvin is the only person horrified at what’s happening and quickly runs over to Robbie and gives him his letter jacket to cover up.  Robbie runs away and the principal turns to Calvin and simply says “no coming back from that one.”  Har, har, har – fuck you.  I was a junior in high school in 1996 and had this happened, I can guarantee that you would have been able to hear a mouse fart in the gym from the dead silence that would have ensued, the pranksters would have been arrested and expelled from school, and more than one person would have gone to the victim’s aid.  Considering the entire point of this scene was to set up Robbie worshipping Calvin for the next twenty years (and establish an anti-bullying theme), there are a hundred different things they could have done to achieve the same goal without stooping to something so unfunny.

That set the tone for me for the rest of the movie.  Back to the present time, Calvin is an accountant disappointed in the way his life turned out, even though he’s married to an extremely hot woman (Danielle Nicolet) and makes plenty of money.  One day at work, he gets a Facebook friend request from Bob Stone and agrees to meet Bob for drinks.  Bob is now actual “The Rock” – CGI not required for the muscles.  They catch up, Bob beats up some dudes for being rude to Calvin and him, then convinces Calvin to use his “international forensic accounting skills” (I wish I was making that up) to hack into a website and decrypt an auction site for Bob.  You see, the real plot of this movie is that Bob is a CIA agent trying to find out who stole all of the encryption keys to the United States’ spy satellites.  Plus, the CIA thinks he killed his former partner, Phil (Aaron Paul), so he’s a rogue agent being pursued by a team led by Agent Harris (Amy Ryan).  That’s the movie and it’s not nearly as smart as its title thinks it is.

To be fair, I was laughing at certain points of the movie because it does have some humor that tickled me.  Most of that comes from Johnson, who is definitely getting better as his filmography grows, and there is some slap-sticky humor that hits its mark.  The problem is that Johnson’s character sucks.  While having drinks with Calvin, he essentially explains that he completely changed his life after the senior prank.  Except, Bob still behaves like a 14-year old dork except when he’s fighting.  He’s constantly referring to Calvin as The Jet, wears a fanny pack that holds one single flash grenade, wears unicorn shirts, and can’t stop talking about wanting to be Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles.  I spent most of the movie waiting for him to snap into the tough guy he was supposed to have become, but it never happens.  Why not just have him revert back when they confront one of the bullies from high school or snap out of dork mode once he reveals that he is an agent?  The tone of the character completely ruined the movie for me, but, again, much of the audience either liked it or didn’t care.

My other issue with the comedy is with the some of the racial jokes.  I find the humor, irony, and point in what Kevin Rock (and comics like Chris Rock) discuss in their routines, but that kind of joke in this kind of movie loses its punch when the punchline is just “because I’m black,” especially because race isn’t one of the themes of this film.  This happens several times throughout the movie – Bob will say something like “you want to wear a fanny pack too?” and Calvin will respond with “because I’m black.”  How is that funny?  The joke is that a giant man like Dwayne Johnson is wearing a fanny pack and likes Sixteen Candles (though this would have worked far better if he was playing a tough guy instead of acting like a complete nerd), not that a black man is wearing a fanny pack.

The biggest problem with this movie is that it never decides what it’s trying to do.  It should have been a buddy-cop, action movie with comedic relief, but comes off like a comedy with action relief.  Muddying the water is the anti-bullying social message that is so poorly executed, Michelle Obama will probably punch them for it.  The three writers handle the message with all the care of a toddler wielding hammers in a glass store.  In its entirety: high school bullies commit serious crime and principal does nothing, newly reformed bullying victim beats the crap out of men in bar for being rude over a chair, original high school bully bullies newly reformed victim again (when they go to him for help), victim punches original high school bully in the face at high school reunion.  So, the message is fight bullies with violence and bullying?  I guess that kind of laziness makes sense, considering the “because I’m black” jokes.

As I reread everything I just wrote, it occurs to me that that was a pretty negative review.  When I left the theater and heard all of the positive responses, I thought maybe I was missing something and thinking on the movie for a couple of days would help me see what they saw.  Nope.  As it turns out, my biggest problem was that the tone of the film was all wrong for me and dampened down a lot of the entertainment value of the comedy and action.  But, if I learned anything from the film it’s that I can make it through a Kevin Hart movie without wanting to scream back at him.

Rating: I’d ask for nine dollars back, but maybe the movie will rub you the right way.