From the moment we meet Gerran Howell's William in writer/director Brett Smith's Civil War drama Freedom's Path, it's rather obvious that this is a well-meaning yet naive young man whose life hasn't quite prepared him for the journey he's about to take. This journey starts with his enlisting in the Union Army, a soldier fighting for a cause he doesn't truly understand and a soldier whose commitment to that cause almost immediately comes into question at his first battle when the guns are firing and his best friend ends up dead.
It's not long after this battle that William encounters a young Black man named Kitch (RJ Cyler), who is quickly revealed to be a player in the growing Underground Railroad and whose presence, in turn, rescues the emotionally and physically battered William despite an initial reluctance to do so. Eventually, they encounter Silas (Ewen Bremner), a vicious slave catcher , whose evil seemingly knows no bounds and whose intentions threaten their very existence.
If Freedom's Path sounds familiar, this is at least partly appropriately so. There's little denying that we've all seen more than a few Civil War dramas and there's also little denying that Freedom's Path wrestles with many of the same issues we've seen before. Refreshingly, though not always successfully, Smith attempts to portray the moral ambiguity that possessed many of those tasked with carrying out this war with causes at stake that not everyone fully understood. This is personified vividly by William, a young man fighting to free slaves while also at times able to justify slavery as having its benefits for the slave. Smith is also uncompromising in his portrayal of the harsh realities of the Civil War, Bremner's Silas a disturbing reality in his relentless brutality bordering on glee when he's able to capture and/or eliminate any Black man he encounters.
Coming in at a far too long 131-minute running time, Freedom's Path functions as both a meditation on the realities of racial prejudice and war while also capturing a subtle yet obvious hopefulness that we can all ultimately get along.
Freedom's Path benefits from its strong ensemble cast, most notably the always strong Cyler and Bremner's mesmerizing turn as Silas. Carol Sutton also shines in a supporting role as Caddy and Afemo Omilami convinces as Ellis.
Chris Koser's lensing is among the film's highlights and far transcends what one expects from a low-budget indie. Ryan Taubert's original music is similarly excellent in creating the necessary atmosphere.
Freedom's Path is the feature directing debut from Smith and it reveals tremendous promise from the up-and-comer. It's clear that Smith is passionate about the story he's telling here, though with a stronger and more cohesive script this really could have soared as an impactful drama. At times, I'll confess the dialogue made me laugh out loud and it's pretty obvious this was not the desired impact.
Script quibbles aside, Freedom's Path is a solid debut from writer/director Brett Smith and offers a variety of worthy discussion points that would make it ideal for middle school or high school history classes. There's much to discuss here and tremendous conversations to be had.
Freedom's Path has been released by indie distributor The Forge and is available via your usual streaming outlets.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic