Producers: AJ Winslow, James Pidgeon, Steven Michael Swadling, Brett Smith and Neko Sparks   Director: Brett Smith   Screenplay: Brett Smith   Cast: Gerran Howell, RJ Cyler, Ewen Bremner, Carol Sutton, Afemo Omilami, Steven Swadling, Thomas Jefferson Byrd, Harrison Gilbertson, Mia May, Dion Burns, Michael Flynn and Jermaine Rivers   Distributor: The Forge

Grade: B-

Good intentions abound in Brett Smith’s small-scaled Civil War drama, an expansion of his 2015 short of the same name, about a young Union soldier’s journey to comprehending the moral crux of the conflict.  William (Gerran Howell) is a callow new infantryman who sheds his uniform and flees into the forest after witnessing the death of his friend Lewis (Harrison Gilbertson) in his first experience of combat—a doomed skirmish with a larger enemy force. 

He had joined up with a political purpose in mind—to save the Union from dissolution.  But rescued by a band of freed and runaway slaves and taken by one of them to recuperate at a homestead that also serves as a way station in the Underground Railroad, he comes to understand the horrors of slavery and concludes that the institution’s eradication is the rationale that will induce him to return to the fight.  At a fraught moment when both he and his rescuer, the runaway Kitch (RJ Cyler), are facing death at the hands of malevolent slave tracker Silas (Ewan Bremner), he shouts to Kitch, who’s dangling on a noose, “I love you like a brother.”

It’s that path to brotherhood between William and Kitch, initially an unlikely, indeed hostile pair, that’s the centerpiece of Smith’s film.  The road is not unlike the one that Jackson and Cullen travelled in Stanley Kramer’s “The Defiant Ones,” though the literal chains that joined Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier are lacking in this case.

William is undoubtedly a deserter, and he’s already witnessed what happens to deserters when his captain summarily shoots a runner from an earlier battle who refuses to join their regiment’s ranks.  He not only removes his uniform; he stabs himself in the leg and plays dead in order to fool the advancing Confederates.  When he’s found by a ragtag bunch of ex-slaves and runaways planning to join a Union army whose soldiers have already shown themselves in the first sene as thoroughly racist, it’s Kitch who argues that they should leave him to die, only to be countermanded by Dee (Jermaine Rivers), who’s killed in an ensuing gunfight with the slave trackers led by Silas.  Kitch then carries William away, taking him to the isolated house where Ellis Freeman (Afemo Omilami) and his wife Caddy (Carol Sutton) had taken him in.  Together with other freedmen in the area, they’re part of the secret operation that leads runaways from the forest to the estate of wealthy Hyrum Williams (Michael Flynn), a secret abolitionist who provides them with help for the next leg of their escape. 

Laid up at the Freemans, and treated by them and other blacks in the area as a hero for his Union service (a belief he doesn’t correct), William gradually becomes close to Kitch, and learns from him how wrong his view of slavery has been.  When he argues that slavery can’t be all bad since so many people support it, adding that Kitch himself has become the man he is in some measure because of it, Kitch angrily disabuses him of the notion.  It’s a scene eerily reflective of an argument in Florida’s new educational standards and the impassioned debate it’s spawned—a contemporary parallel that perhaps played a role in finally securing a release for the film, which had been sitting on the shelf for some years, if Sutton’s death in 2020 is anything to go by. 

The last act sees the return of Silas and his crew of bloodthirsty followers, their capture of William and Kitch, and William’s declaration of brotherhood at the point of execution.  And though Silas is interrupted, it’s not before his violence has taken a terrible toll.

In telling this story Brett exhibits a good deal of the heavy didacticism that Kramer did sixty-five years ago, and the message of “Freedom’s Path” is hardly a new one.  The picture is also afflicted with a tendency toward stereotyping, as well as bursts of flowery writing (the voiceovers that bookend the action are the worst examples).  The title, too, is awfully on-the-nose.  This “Path” also moves very slowly, which saps the suspense out of some episodes (the sequence of William and Kitch being menaced by Silas, for instance, is very protracted). 

But the flaws are mitigated by several factors.  One is the quality of the performances.  Howell, a young Welsh actor who’s film résumé is scanty (small roles in “1917” and the little-seen “The Song of Names”) and who looks a bit like the young Jamie Bell, offers a restrained, credible turn and a convincing American accent, while Cyler, whose career has been erratic since his strong debut in 2015’s “Me, Earl and the Dying Girl,” makes Kitch a powerful presence.  And if Bremner overdoes the snarling viciousness of Silas, Sutton keeps Caddy from descending into “Gone With the Wind”-level stereotyping.  Everyone else is more than adequate to their tasks.

Add to that some surprisingly strong technical work from production designer Mitchell Crisp and costumer Jane Anderson, laboring under what was surely a modest budget, and cinematographer Chris Koser, who uses fog, mist and the smoke from rifle-muskets to considerable effect, especially in the early battle sequence, while elsewhere fashioning some painterly widescreen images.  Editor Tomas Vengris crafts that opening battle skillfully, cannily concealing the small scale with shifting cuts, though elsewhere he and Smith allow things to go slack too often.  Ryan Taubert adds a properly mournful score.

“Freedom’s Path” is not without flaws, but its earnestness, better than average execution and excellent lead performances make it more effective than you might expect, even if the message it delivers is hardly a new one.