While the Confederacy was busy seceding from the Union, Newt Knight (Matthew McConaughey) and a band of Mississippi slaves and small farmers were striving to secede from the Confederacy. The story is true, which doesn’t mean the movie is entertaining. It’s earnest and overly thorough, complete with on-screen footnotes and jarring flash forwards to the not-much-better Mississippi of the 1950s. It’s one of those untold stories that is best told as a documentary. A long one.
We’re introduced to Newt ferrying broken, brutalized bodies from battlefield to field hospital. He’s a Confederate nurse sickened by death and increasingly angered at the thought that his neighbors and kin are being slaughtered for the rich man’s cotton and slaves. Thus does he evolve into a gun-toting Spartacus, gathering the enslaved and the disenfranchised and creating a small army of freedom fighters. OK, we get it. Now what?
Now not much. Newt and his crew take up residence in an impenetrable green swamp. They occasionally slip out to humiliate the Confederate patrols dispatched to bring them in or put them down. They are hunted but happy. (We would invoke the image of Robin Hood, but we’ve already recruited Spartacus.)
The soldiers in gray keep coming back, their numbers larger, their commander crueler. The stage is set for a big showdown and the mood of the movie changes. All that somber goodness and brotherhood steps away to allow for an action-adventure shoot-em-up complete with an audacious assassination and neat deceptions. Cool!
Then Newt goes back to freeing the slaves and teaching them how to read and shoot. And, though he has a nice wife (Keri Russell) and a little girl, he deserts her along with the Confederate army and marries Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave who learns her letters at his knee. When Newt and the two wives eventually meet, all parties are civil and generous and the viewer dies a thousand deaths at the awkwardness of it all.
The war ends, but, unfortunately, the movie does not. We weather Reconstruction, a whole new series of violence, black voter intimidation and a lynching. Then … back to the ’50s. In all these instances, the victims are black, but the heart that aches is white. Newt’s good heart. In the end, Newt does not really free the slaves. The movie installs him as their new master.