So how was it? Let's see...
Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey), a Confederate medic from Mississippi, deserts from the army to take home the body of his son (or a relative of some kind, it's not 100% clear), who had been drafted by Confederate soldiers who had also taken most of the family's crops and farming equipment. Already upset by the "20 slave law" that exempts the sons of large slave-owners from the draft, he protects a widow and her daughters from the thieving Confederates, who then chase him into the swamp using bloodhounds. He falls in with some runaway slaves and organizes a rebellion against the Confederacy. Along the way, he romances the slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) after his wife Serena (Keri Russell) leaves him. After the war, he and his fellow guerrillas become staunch Republicans (the white South was strongly Democratic at the time) but soon face the coming of lynching, disenfranchisement, and Jim Crow.
*Great, great history that has rarely if ever been told on film before. The period where film emerged as an art form and Hollywood emerged as a cultural machine coincided with a period called "the nadir of American race relations," the age of widespread disenfranchisement, Jim Crow segregation, and lynchings. The dominant historiography of Reconstruction at the time, the Dunning School, taught that Reconstruction governments had been run by corrupt Northern migrants and inept, foolish blacks. It's no surprise that the first film with an actual plot is the Klan-glorifying The Birth of a Nation, while mega-film Gone With The Wind romanticizes the antebellum South. There's even the 1940 film Santa Fe Trail that depicts abolitionist John Brown as a maniac who burns the Kansas countryside and so frightens the slaves that they don't want freedom if it's him bringing it.
Furthermore, when movies began depicting the Confederacy and slavery in a negative light, the story was told very simplistically. Union good and anti-racist (the film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter depicts abolitionists holding signs declaring blacks and whites equals, a notion most opponents of slavery would have viewed with disgust), Confederacy evil and racist (Glory emphasizes the atrocities inflicted on black Union troops and their white officers by Confederates). The nuances of the conflict, such as Northerners hating blacks and refusing to fight in an "emancipation war" or poor Southern whites opposing the Confederacy as a rich man's project they're expected to die for, are generally ignored.
(And even though poor whites were generally racist themselves--the rich whites used racism or the possibility they too could become big slave-owners to manipulate them--poor whites and blacks could work together. A populist biracial movement in North Carolina functioned--and even governed--for several years before being toppled by voter fraud and outright violence by Southern Democrats. I mean, seriously, they organized an outright coup d'etat against the municipal government of Wilmington. Thanks The Dollop podcast for reminding me just in time.)
*Some people were concerned that the movie would be a "white man saves poor blacks" movie, but that's not the case. At first it's a group of runaway slaves who save Newton, providing him shelter from Confederate soldiers hunting him and medical attention for his injured leg. The runaway slave Moses (Mahershala Ali) is portrayed as a leader of the runaways and later as a Reconstruction political activist registering blacks to vote. Knight is the one who first organizes them to fight, but he's a trained soldier and blacks both during and after slavery were purposefully kept ignorant of guns. Historically Knight did lead the insurgency against the Confederacy and later as a strong supporter of blacks' rights (he served as the commander of an all-black unit tasked with fighting racist paramilitaries), so downgrading him to avoid treading on certain people's toes does him a disservice.
*There are some good character moments, like Rachel crying when Newton leads her to a feather bed. Given what we learn about how she'd been treated as a slave, feather beds might bring back some very bad memories. The racial tensions that exist within the guerrilla band do get revealed when the blacks are pointedly not participating in a cookout and a white guerrilla tries to keep one of the blacks from eating some of the leftovers.
*Knight's Christian faith is strongly emphasized. Much is often made about how the Confederates quoted the Bible to defend slavery, but his defense of the lone woman and her daughters against the thieving Confederates reminds me very much of James 1:27. Some of his economic ideas echo the Catholic notion of distributism.
*For a war movie this was extremely, extremely non-exciting. Even the battle sequences were boring, and that's really saying something. There are gigantic time skips linked together by onscreen text and images. There have been movies covering spans of years before that handled transitions of time in a more subtle or more interesting fashion. Instead we get a disjointed mess of a movie. It's the single worst aspect of the film. Nick is wondering if there's a three-hour director's cut out there somewhere and hopefully he's right. Hopefully that cut includes some battle scenes earlier in the movie--it's not until at least an hour in that we get serious combat between the guerrillas and Confederate authorities. And the climactic battle sequence is too abbreviated.
Would it be too hard to have a montage of Confederate soldiers deserting, Home Guard stealing crops and hanging deserters, Knight organizing runaway slaves and Confederate deserters into an army, etc? Come on, this is basic film class stuff here.
*Peppered throughout the Civil War story of Newton Knight is the tale of his 20th Century descendant Davis (via Rachel) getting persecuted by the state of Mississippi. Though he is to all appearances white himself, since he has a black great-grandmother by the laws of the state he's considered black and his marriage to a white woman is illegal. If The Free State of Jones were a television miniseries--an exploration in the vein of Roots about how many white Southerners have black ancestors perhaps--using the younger Knight's story to bookend the tale of how his black foremother and his white forefather got together would make sense. Here it just adds to the film's running time. Davis Knight's story would be better as some kind of epilogue or even an on-screen graphic explaining the ultimate fate of Netwton and Rachel's descendants.
*There's not a clear antagonist. It would have been better if they combined the local Confederate colonel and cavalry lieutenant Barbour (Bill Tangradi), who extorts taxes "in kind" from the poor farmers, into one chronic enemy of Knight's. Think how Jason Isaacs' character in The Patriot was Mel Gibson's singular nemesis. The colonel at one point orders something that clearly troubles Barbour, but we don't see any disagreement (unlike the scene in The Patriot when Jason Isaacs orders the burning of a church with Patriot civilians inside, horrifying one of his subordinates) or any real character development on his part.
*Reconstruction lasted for around a decade in Mississippi, but we never see the period of large-scale black participation in the government (including two black U.S. Senators) that so riled white racists. Seeing Moses facing off against local planter James Eakins (Joe Chrest), who manages to reclaim his estate and even some of his slaves as "apprentices" after swearing an oath to the Union, as rival political leaders would have been interesting.
*The potential political power of Mississippi blacks--they were more than half the population--is never discussed, even though blacks voting plays a big part in the last section of the film. There's a reason disenfranchisement was particularly zealous and stringent in Mississippi. I remember a map from a US history book (that I can't find at the moment) depicting Virginia and Georgia as having double-digit percentage of blacks voting before the Voting Rights Act (40% and 25% if I remember right), but Mississippi and Alabama having only around 5%.
*There's a scene where some of Knight's band are hanged by Confederates and we never see them beg for mercy, claim they weren't supposed to be hanged, etc. That's a weakness, especially given the circumstances that lead to the hanging.
Newton, Rachel, and the others who stood against the Confederacy deserve a better movie than this. It's good history, but it's not a good movie. I was originally planning on giving it a 5.0 out of 10 (worse than what I gave Hook), but out of consideration for how little-known the history of anti-Confederate whites is, I'll give it a 6.0.
Do better next time. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III was more entertaining than this, and that movie was so mediocre I didn't have much to say during the podcast we had on the movie and didn't bother writing a review. Jeez.