'Free State of Jones' Premiere: Cast, Director Want Viewers to Start a Conversation

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Gugu Mbatha-Raw

"I think there’s a burden when you’re dealing with this type of material to make sure people understand what’s true and what isn’t. I took that burden seriously," says director-writer Gary Ross.

Hollywood gathered at the Directors Guild Theater in Los Angeles on Tuesday for the premiere of Free State of Jones, the true story of a rebellious and anti-Confederate Southern farmer, Newt Knight.

Matthew McConaughey plays Knight, but he wasn't present at the premiere. Those who were, though, including the cast and writer-director Gary Ross, made it clear they don't want moviegoers to forget about this film after watching.

Bill Tangradi, who plays a Confederate lieutenant, told The Hollywood Reporter that he hopes Free State of Jones will leave people with questions.

"I just hope that this film just creates a conversation, that it creates a discourse -- an ongoing discourse about race in America, about the role of sovereignty in America and an individual’s will to try and affect change, no matter what your race is," Tangradi said.

"Ongoing" was a commonly used term throughout the evening among the cast, in an effort to reiterate the idea that the issues present in the film and throughout history haven't necessarily been solved.

Thomas Francis Murphy, who plays a Confederate general, referenced this by quoting William Faulkner, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

"I hope they [moviegoers] take away a bit of that," Murphy continued. "This is not something that just goes away. It’s an ongoing story.”

Kerry Cahill, who depicts Mary in the film, similarly thinks that by taking a look at the past, people will be able to better move forward.

"What I really hope is that they [moviegoers] have an understanding that the Civil War and American policy pre- and post-Civil War was a lot more grey than it seems -- that it's been a lot more complex and we're still affected by policies post-Civil War," Cahill told The Hollywood Reporter. "If you know your own history, then you can move forward better because you know you're standing on solid ground."

Those who see Free State of Jones will definitely get their fair share of history. Ross told The Hollywood Reporter, "I didn't make much up and I want people to see the primary sources so they can realize that for themselves.”

Viewers won't have to go searching on their own to fact-check the movie, though. Ross compiled his 10 years worth of research to create a website with annotations for different topics and scenes in the film.

“To me, it’s very important for people to understand what’s true and what isn’t so that they can find the story to be reliable and to know what I fictionalized and what I did not," Ross told THR. "I think there’s a burden when you’re dealing with this type of material to make sure people understand what’s true and what isn’t. I took that burden seriously.”

While the cast may not have invested the amount of time Ross did in preparation for Free State of Jones, they were sure to do their research in order to fully understand their characters.

Mahershala Ali, who plays escaped slave and Knight's friend, Moses, told THR that he not only did his fair share of reading, but put a lot of effort into understanding the time period -- particularly by finding and listening to relevant music.

However, for many of the cast, they had never even heart of Newt Knight or his story.

To Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Rachel in the film, this is why Free State of Jones is so unique.

"It's really sort of a refreshing look at the Civil War, also the Reconstruction era after the Civil War," Mbatha-Raw told THR. "There’s not that many movies that I’ve scene about that struggle. Also, the fact that it’s about white farmers and escaped slaves uniting together as opposed to against each other -- I thought that was a refreshing idea. And the fact that it’s a true story was really pioneering for its time.”

This slightly unheard of aspect of the war was a big part of what Ross wanted to highlight for audiences.

"I hope that they [moviegoers] learn that the Civil War went all the way through to 1876 and that’s a tremendously important thing for all us to realize -- that it didn’t end with a happy ending when the slaves were freed in 1865," Ross said. "No sooner were they free when there was re-enslavement in 1876. I think that it’s really important to remember when you only look at one little slice of history, you can make yourself feel better as an American that there was a happy ending to the Civil War -- but there was not.”

Free State of Jones will hit theaters Friday.

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