Smith’s Heartfelt Debut Can’t Overcome Its Hurdles
Jan 12, 2023
Home Movie Reviews Freedom’s Path Review: Smith’s Heartfelt Debut Can’t Overcome Its Hurdles [SDIFF]
Freedom’s Path has some hurdles that it just can’t overcome from a narrative standpoint despite its heartwarming undertones.
RJ Cyler and Gerran Howell in Freedom’s Path
There’s something to be said about films centered around slavery and/or the fight towards freedom. There’s always an embedded trauma no matter how uplifting or positive a spin the story takes. For Black moviegoers, there’s an unwritten consensus that viewers are no longer in need of these types of stories. Or, at least, these audiences would rather see themselves in fun action movies or even rom-coms. Yet, these narratives continue to get made, oftentimes by white filmmakers. It’s easy to point one’s finger at first-time feature director Brett Smith and simply ask, “Why?” But Freedom’s Path, which showed at the San Diego International Film Festival, has been 12 years in the making — seven years after the debut of his short film of the same name.
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The story follows William (Gerran Howell), a Union soldier during the American Civil War. After deserting a battle and intentionally injuring himself to avoid death, William gets caught in the crossfires of Confederates hunting down a group of Black fighters. Left to flee the scene with Kitch (R.J. Cyler), a runaway slave with a heart of gold and a will of many men, William soon discovers the casualties of war —especially when you’re Black or on the right side of history. Kitch and William develop an unsuspecting friendship throughout an impossible mission to help free other slaves via the Underground Railroad.
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Harrison Gilbertson and Gerran Howell in Freedom’s Path
Brett Smith’s directorial debut comes at a time in which it feels as if Hollywood has exhausted itself with war and slavery movies. With his script, he attempts to tackle the time period through an alternative lens and perspective, giving the hero mantle to the slave and the ignorance to the white soldier. William’s vantage point is central to the underlying message of Smith’s film — that life is as simple as a choice. But viewers may be left to doubt this sentiment when Smith chooses to frame his story through a white soldier’s perspective. This is the same soldier who, after witnessing the murder and brutality of Black lives before his very eyes, ponders out loud to Kitch if slavery brought about some good.
Moments like these throughout Smith’s feature can have even the most empathetic of viewers scratching their heads to understand the intent behind such messaging. Sure, it’s a great moment to introduce conflict, but it doesn’t make sense at that moment, or for the story Smith appears to be telling. If, by the film’s end, the director expects his audience to feel for William’s character, that’s a big ask, especially when the majority of the film includes Black runaways catering and nursing him back to health. There just aren’t enough redeeming moments to enable that natural progression no matter what his stance is by the story’s end.
Gerran Howell in Freedom’s Path
If there’s one thing Freedom’s Path does right it’s showcasing that most Black people have always been a welcoming bunch to anyone, no matter the color of one’s skin or the hardships they’ve been dealt. But for some reason (and as demonstrated appropriately in the film), it always takes a great deal of effort for other cultures and races to look beyond a dark skinned complexion — and beyond the stereotypes — to keep biases in check and get to know Black people. With every Black character William came across, hesitation was the initial reaction, but never judgment or exclusion. That’s a beautiful lesson that is always easy to appreciate.
Freedom’s Path has some hurdles that it just can’t overcome from a narrative standpoint. There’s quite a bit of rose-colored storytelling that goes on throughout this feature. There are also significant pacing issues that make it difficult to lean into the storytelling. With that being said, there’s no denying the underlying heartfelt attempt at sharing profound messages. And with great performances from Howell and Cyler, as well as breathtaking sequences that have the ability to keep the attention of its viewers, the film is certainly worth watching. In the end, Brett Smith’s heart was exactly where it needed to be in the creation of his feature debut — and that’s in the right place.
Next: Aftersun Review: Charlotte Wells’ Debut Feature Is Poignant & Powerful
Freedom’s Path played during the 2022 San Diego International Film Festival. The film is 131 minutes long and is not yet rated.
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