The movie opens with graphic views of the fighting in the Civil War. Although these made my wife cringe, I think seeing exploding heads, gaping abdominal wounds, hogs chewing on corpses, and screaming soldiers undergoing amputations is necessary to a proper view of the Civil War. So much of the savagery is skipped over in discussions of war that we forget how awful it was for the soldiers on both sides. Newton Knight, the historical figure who founded the Free State of Jones, flees the carnage (after carrying home the corpse of a young relative) and, now a deserter, makes his way to the swamps. Here he meets up with escaped slaves and other deserters who he eventually organizes into a small army. They join local families in defying Confederates trying to capture deserters and enforce conscription while raiding local farms to supply Southern armies fighting further north. Knight's army of deserters and slaves grows as the war turns against the Confederacy. So does the viciousness of the fighting and retributions. Young boys and slaves are hung after surrendering and skirmishes and battles with Confederates are shown in gruesome detail.
Finally the war ends and reconstruction begins but the fires of joys are soon extinguished in the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, black codes, and lynchings. Even the descendants of Knight are shown fighting laws against mixed marriage in the Mississippi courts decades later. While there are many fictional scenes in the movie, I believe it was well done and reflects not only history but the emotional human drama of the times. The Free State of Jones has an R rating but the violence underscores the realities of the times, something that we need to know and feel if we are to learn from history.