The Civil War divided America between North and South, but the divisions went deeper than a simple line across the map. It divided communities within those borders too, resulting in smaller rebellions within the rebellion. The most famous of these led to the creation of West Virginia, but smaller rebellions arose in other Confederate states as well. Free State of Jones tells the story of Newton Knight and his rejection of the plantation and race politics of the Confederacy, as well as the sad legacies of both.

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) serves in an infantry unit on the front lines of the war in Mississippi and has already become cynical of the fight by 1862. His disillusionment becomes complete when he hears about deferments given to slave owners on the basis of their wealth, leaving poorer men such as himself to fight their war for them. When a young kinsman of his gets killed in battle, Newton deserts and returns home, only to start fighting against the local Confederate government and their locust-like tax policy. Eventually he has to hide in swamp country in Jones County, where he joins up with runaway slaves and other deserters to form a company of men and women, both white and black, to defend their land.

Overlaid in this story is a 1948 court case involving Davis Knight, a descendant of Newton. Davis has married a white woman, but the state of Mississippi argues that Davis is not descended from Newton’s first wife Serena (Keri Russell), a white woman, but from his second common-law wife Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a former slave. As Newton’s story unfolds, so does Davis’ — and so does our understanding that not much changed in nearly a century between the two stories.

Free State of Jones didn’t make much of an impact on the box office on its release, a victim of poor scheduling. Released in late June, it only scored $20 million or so in a season more oriented to either comic-book tentpole films or rom-coms. Gritty historical dramas don’t tend to get a lot of notice, and the lack of blockbuster stars outside of McConaughey probably didn’t help. That explains why Free State of Jones has shown up already as an on-demand rental choice and on Blu-Ray.

It’s a shame, though, because Free State of Jones is a gem — a truly gripping historical drama that does a decent job of sticking to history. McConaughey turns in a terrific performance, as do Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali as Moses, a former slave who becomes Newton’s close friend and ally. The pacing at times gets a little slow, but that seems more like deliberation than a waste of time. Given the scope of the film, a 139-minute run time feels more compact by the end. The conclusion of the film might not be as satisfactory as audiences would hope, but given the reality of that history, it rings true.

In a very real way, this is the experience that The Magnificent Seven should have been. Perhaps only a true story can deliver on that kind of promise.

On the Hot Air DVD scale, I’d rate this a 4:

  • 4 – Buy the Blu-Ray/DVD
  • 3 – Worth a rental price or pay-per-view
  • 2 – Wait for it to come on a TV channel you already get
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

I’d love to watch the extras on the Blu-Ray, so I’m thinking about buying this film even though I’ve already paid the rental price.

Free State of Jones is rated R for “brutal battle scenes and disturbing graphic images.” The worst of these are in battlefield hospitals rather than the battlefield itself, and perhaps another scene toward the end that isn’t quite explicit, but you certainly know what happened. I’d be very reluctant to have my 14-year-old granddaughter watch this, although the story is powerful enough to hope she’ll want to see it when she’s better prepared to deal with the ugliness of war and hate.

Update: I neglected to mention the specific time line in the Davis Knight case. I’ve added it above; it took place in 1948.