Mahershala Ali is very proud of “Free State of Jones.” The historical drama tells the story of a group of ex-slaves, poor farmers and war deserters who, during the Civil War, mounted an insurgency against Confederate powers. Ali plays Moses Washington, a runaway slave who joins up with Matthew McConaughey’s Newton Knight, only to find his race suffering even after the war ends. Ali, who’s best known for playing Remy Danton on “House of Cards” and Boggs in the last two “Hunger Games” films, says what drove him to the film wasn’t just about telling a story that isn’t that well-known.
This isn’t a typical Civil War movie, in part because it shows how difficult it was in the south for former slaves even after it was over.
When we watch these Civil War pieces or projects, they always end with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. And that’s it. But the fact is there were these local laws that were instituted in the south that were basically another version of slavery. There were apprenticeship laws, black code laws, which made it very difficult to “exist” as a free black person at the time. There were tens of thousands of African Americans being lynched. The film addresses those. It’s more open-ended than we’re used to. When you walk away from the film you understand why we had Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights era, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers. “Free State of Jones” gives you a sense of what was to come.
It doesn’t have the usual triumphant ending. It’s kind of downbeat.
It’s an honest ending. I wouldn’t say it’s downbeat. It’s honest. They don’t live happily ever after, which is usually what you walk away with in these blockbuster Hollywood films. Gary was honest about where our country was at the time.
The whole film doesn’t hit the usual historical prestige picture marks. It not only tells a story that hasn’t been filmed before, but it tries to keep a certain complexity.
Part of that was Gary [Ross, director] became such a student of the era. He worked on the project for 10 years. We had Harvard scholars there, who would go through the history. It was amazing to be in the presence of that and constantly hear Gary talk about the era and the stuff that didn’t make it into the film. There was so much information that we couldn’t put in there. Otherwise we would have had to do a trilogy, and I don’t know if anyone’s interested in seeing a trilogy about that. But he didn’t want to dumb it down and make easy-to-digest. He was interested in making it as honest and truthful and layered as possible.