Freedom’s Path (The Forge, NR)

Brett Smith is definitely a director to watch going forward. His first feature-length film, Freedom’s Path isn’t perfect, but it’s a strikingly passionate and well-crafted Civil War drama.

The film follows cowardly Union soldier William (Gerran Howell) and the friendship he forges with free black man Kitch (RJ Cyler). Kitch runs a section of the Underground Railroad along with a few other freed slaves. As a ruthless slave-catcher named Silas (Ewen Bremner) closes in on their part of the network, William must decide whether to remain a coward or help defend his friends.

Some may scoff at the film’s heavy focus on William’s inner life and how it sometimes gives Kitch — the character who obviously more frequently has more at stake — short shrift. However, for most of the film’s runtime, the two really are co-leads, and the development of their strong bond is well-paced and very convincing. Cyler does a terrific job punctuating and perfecting Kitch’s arc, as he’s initially strongly against helping a wounded William (the wound is self-inflicted, but William doesn’t even have the courage to tell anyone this), but softens to him over time.

Freedom’s Path is also nuanced enough to avoid some of the storytelling pitfalls lesser writers and directors might succumb to when dealing with this kind of plot set in this time period. William is an orphan who has allowed that to define his whole life up to this point. Before meeting Kitch, he’s happy to not really think for himself; he’s dead weight. More than that, he’s unenlightened dead weight. The story, while a bit saccharine around the edges, isn’t really about William being or turning into any sort of hero so much as it’s about human connection. The fact that it takes its time developing its characters is what brings that theme to the finish line. Though there are a few broad strokes here, the movie ultimately comes across as genuine, not manipulative.

Plus, this film is extremely well-shot and well-edited. Even if I didn’t know this was an independent film, I would still be very impressed with many of its compositions. Knowing this didn’t have big-studio backing, every shot pretty much looks like a million bucks. There is a battle sequence at the beginning of the picture that looks better and more classically cinematic than some recent Hollywood war films I’ve seen. Some of this has to be attributed to the outstanding editing by Tomas Vengris, of course, but even so, many of the silhouettes and a good chunk of the action photography is simply gorgeous.

There is one area on the technical side that does drown the film in the melodrama it mostly avoids, and that’s the non-diegetic music by Ryan Taubert. There are just simply too many sappy string interludes when the acting is already carrying the scene perfectly well. There are, however, an abundance of beautiful diegetic period-accurate spirituals sprinkled throughout the film.

Freedom’s Path, thanks in large part to RJ Cyler’s extraordinary performance and the steady hands of Brett Smith and his camera crew, is absolutely one of 2023’s greatest independent highlights. Perhaps some of you already knew this, since it won the Special Jury Prize at last year’s St. Louis International Film Festival, but regardless of when you catch up with it, it’s sure to leave a strong impression.

Freedom’s Path is now available on a variety of video-on-demand services. | George Napper

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