First Hit: Ambitious telling of a few southern men who really wanted to be free of the South’s prejudicial way of life.
The film begins with Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) carrying a wounded soldier into a field hospital. Showing intelligence and compassion, he strips off the soldier’s uniform and replaces it with an officer’s and announces that he’s got a captain that needs assistance.
Because he’s an officer the wounded soldier gets help. In this simple scene we are shown the compassionate leadership qualities in Knight. When his son Daniel (Jacob Lofland), by his wife Serena (Keri Russell), gets killed, he loads him up on a mule and deserts the Confederate Army, a corporal offense, and returns the body to his home.
Serena, distraught, packs up their youngest child and leaves the area. Because he’s now a wanted deserter, Knight has to hide out in the swamp with escaped slaves. One day, while protecting a poor farmer's wife and daughters from Lt. Barbour's (Bill Tangradi) pillaging their corn, hogs, and supplies, he's discovered by the Confederate Army raiders which now want to chase him down and prosecute him.
Of course the rich landowners were not pillaged and were also protected from losing any of their property. Knight ends creating a small society of other deserters and former slaves whose goal is to live free with equality among all men. Moses (Mahershala Ali) is one of the slaves who becomes a strong leader in the movement to rid the South of their prejudicial ways.
Newton falls in love with Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who is another slave who fled their owner and they have a child together. This story becomes very complex because this growing group of freedom fighters, fight the Confederate Army and the Klu Klux Klan to earn freedom from oppressive citizen attitudes and a government learning how to enforce the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
To re-enforce the difficulty of these changes, Rachel and Newt’s son is shown in court as an adult because he’s partially black and wasn’t allowed to marry a white woman.
McConaughey was well suited to this role. His down home nature and natural leadership qualities are well represented here. Russell is strong as the first wife who leaves and comes back to be very supportive of the movement. Trangradi is very good and brings the right attitude to his character. Ali is powerful as the former slave who embraces his freedom in all ways. Mbatha-Raw is sublime as the movement’s supporter and eventual wife of Newt. Gary Ross wrote and directed this ambitious effort. Although I think he bit more off than could be chewed in this film, his representation of the changes the South went through was excellent.
Overall: This film sheds light on a man whose tombstone accurately states: “He lived for others.”