So my boyfriend has invented a nickname for Matthew McConaughey because he couldn’t remember his name, (or maybe because he’s jealous of my celebrity crush). He calls him McCottoney (I think that’s the right spelling).
McCottoney has taken on a life of his own as a ragged old gold prospector or mountain man, a sort of character whose hobbies include chewing tobacco and hollering incomprehensible curses like “doggonit.” Apparently his first name has been replaced by the nickname Scraps.
When I saw the trailer for Free State of Jones, it seemed McCottoney had truly sprung to life in all his ragged glory. Talk about self-actualization. Of course, I had to go see that movie. I was there with McConaughey from the beginning with obscure films like Reign of Fire, unlike some people who only like him now that he’s won an Oscar.
I always watched his movies because he has always been ridiculously good looking. I didn’t really care that much about his acting ability, but now seeing him in Free State of Jones, I thought his acting was amazing. McCottoney–I mean McConaughey portrays an unwilling soldier in the US Civil War, Newton Knight. He’s actually “just a nurse” as one guy refers to him because it’s his job to transport the wounded from the battle field.
From the opening of the film, we see Newton as the kind of person who cares about others’ wellbeing and isn’t swept away in dreams of honour and glory. When his nephew is killed, he quits the army and makes a run for it. But even in his home town, the war effort means that his neighbours are robbed of their livelihood to support the troops, so McConaughey’s character stands up against that injustice.
He falls in with a band of runaway slaves, and this leads him to form his own little group of both white and black outlaws who champion freedom from slavery and oppression, fighting against the Confederacy.
The film portrays all the grim realities of the civil war and its aftermath, even though McConaughey’s good looks make it seem like being a hardscrabble farmer in Middle of Nowhere, Mississippi is quite glamorous. It shows through an interesting flash-forward how little had changed in terms of race relations in Mississippi.
As Richard Grant writes when investigating the real history of Jones County,
On the county line, I was half-expecting a sign reading “Welcome to the Free State of Jones” or “Home of Newton Knight,” but the Confederacy is now revered by some whites in the area, and the chamber of commerce had opted for a less controversial slogan: “Now This Is Living!”
McConaughey embodies his character in a way that is historically accurate and not too showy. He excels at showing Knight’s ability to behave like a true leader, never exploding in righteous indignation but making extraordinary efforts to suppress his burning outrage and anger (either that, or constipation). Seriously though, I think this is one of McConaughey’s best acting moments.
Also, he bears an almost uncanny resemblance to the real Knight:
In the film, Knight often reminded me of some Old Testament prophet with his long beard and his religious fervour. He proudly declares that “a man’s a man,” meaning that all men are equal, whether black or white. He later married a former slave, Rachel, who had been instrumental in helping the outlaw band. However, he doesn’t seem to do much to recognize women’s achievements.
There’s something patriarchal about him, which is not surprising considering the time and place he lived in. But, despite all that, as Matthew McConaughey says of his character, “He was a beacon of a man, ahead of his time.”
It’s definitely a story that needed to be told. The film has been criticized unfairly in my opinion for being a “white savior” myth, but it is after all, a true story. I think better to make movies about a white savior who was fighting for a good cause than, say, The Wolf of Wall Street, glorifying a “white scammer” who was just trying to make himself rich and acting like a jerk.
Of course, there are not enough movie being made featuring non-white main characters, or female ones. I think the story of Harriet Tubman definitely deserves its own movie with a female lead. However, Newton Knight was a really amazing character who also deserves a film of his own.