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How to be Free

In Free State of Jones, Gugu Mbatha-Raw forges unity for a common cause

In recent years, screens big and small have seen such an uptick in stories about slavery, from Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave to TV’s Underground and Roots remake, that some black actors have criticized Hollywood’s appetite for depicting brutality against black people, citing a lack of imagination for other periods in African-American history. But the British actor Gugu Mbatha-Raw, 33, who stars opposite Matthew ­McConaughey in this summer’s Free State of Jones, begs to differ.

“This movie isn’t just about slavery,” she says. “Often you see villainous slave owners and victimized slaves.” Jones, on the other hand, depicts poor white farmers joining runaway slaves to form an uprising. “It’s about how people can be united in the fight for freedom,” she says.
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It’s also a surprising romance. Free State of Jones is based on the true story of Newton “Newt” Knight (McConaughey), a Confederate Army deserter who led a rebellion against a South he believed was enlisting poor farmers to fight for the interests of rich men, namely cotton and slaves. (That’s according to the movie’s telling, anyway—historians still debate his true motivations.) Mbatha-Raw plays Rachel, a runaway slave who joins the insurrection and later marries Newt, becoming one of the few black women to own land in Mississippi.

“I found it fascinating—she lived this double life between the plantation and the rebels. The courage that must have taken!” says Mbatha-Raw. She got into character by exploring Louisiana’s swamplands. “It’s helpful to go to the place where my character may have stood—to be out there in the swamps, to smell the magnolia trees. I find that so informative on a sensory level.”

Though McConaughey may get top billing, Free State of Jones is largely about the role of women during ­wartime—both slaves like Rachel and white Southerners, like Newt’s first wife Serena (Keri Russell), left behind by husbands called to war. The Knights’ arrangement was far from perfect—Reconstruction replaced the violence of slavery with new forms of cruelty—but it still resulted in whites and blacks living harmoniously, if only in one little corner of the South. Even Serena lived alongside her former husband and his new wife. As Mbatha-Raw says, quoting director Gary Ross’s script, “Wars make strange families.”

Since crossing over from the London theater scene in 2009, Mbatha-Raw has played characters both from history (like an 18th century biracial aristocrat in 2013’s Belle) and from the future (she stars in the forthcoming J.J. Abrams sci-fi flick God Particle). But the challenges are universal. “Time marches on,” she says. “But human beings still worry about the same things.”

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