The opening battle sequence illustrates the horror of Civil War battle. Serving as a nurse, Newton is a witness to the carnage and must part in barbaric amputation operations. After suffering a personal loss Newton deserts the army and returns to Jones County Mississippi where he must live in hiding (desertion entailed the death penalty).
In time a community coalesces around escaped slaves and former confederates. They wage war on the plantation owners and take over the county, Robin Hoods of the Civil War I suppose. They come to realize their shared humanity and overcome the barriers that separate them. Of course, the Southern land owners had a strong stake in keeping poor whites at odds with African-American slaves.
The Free State of Jones makes for a strong counterpoint to Gone With the Wind, a film invested in the "Lost Cause" narrative, the idea the Southern fight was honorable in the face of Northern aggression. Slaves were treated well and content with their station, Southern culture was superior to the North etc . . .
In saying that, The Free State of Jones is a bit overlong, especially during a plodding middle section. But it does maintain a compelling tone, a combination of tragedy and hope.
McConaughey delivers an outstanding performance as usual. Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw give poignant supporting performances as African-Americans struggling for their freedom after the war.
As NY Times critic A.O. Scott pointed out, there's a much welcome anti-authoritarian message the film. In contrast to superhero movies where Captain America or Batman takes it upon themselves to protect the helpless masses. Here the people come together in community to effect change. No one waits for a hero to show up - they take action on their own terms.
The Free State of Jones may not be the summer fare audiences expect, but it does offer depth and a perceptive look at American history.