'Freedom's Path' rewinds America's history
February 6, 2023 at 6:16 p.m.
Updated February 8, 2023 at 10:51 a.m.
Although the American Civil War acts as an important backdrop for the movie “Freedom's Path,” friendship is the glue holding the film together.
In the first few minutes of the independently produced motion picture written and directed by Washington state filmmaker Brett Smith, viewers will see a young man named William sneaking out of his house to greet a friend. The duo is on their way to join the Union in the front lines of the war — which is not at all what they expected it to be.
During their first skirmish against the Confederacy, William (played by Welsh actor Gerran Howell) sees his buddy die in front of him. His last words to William are “You gotta get home.” With bodies falling around him, William panics and flees the battle. Sheltered by a large tree, he stabs himself in the thigh and feigns unconsciousness.
Soon, William realizes he needs to leave the scene or risk being shot for desertion. In his weakened state, he eventually passes out for real. When he comes to, he's surrounded by a group of what he finds out are free Black men. One of them, Kitch (RJ Cyler), is antagonistic toward him at first, but eventually saves his life and takes him deep into the woods to a secret community of freed slaves who are also part of the Underground Railroad, something William eventually finds out about and helps facilitate.
The development of the friendship between William and Kitch feels startlingly authentic. Their bond helps propel the story forward, and makes the viewer care deeply about what happens to them — not only as they face travails such as a desperate slave catcher intent on capturing Kitch, but also as they teach each other to swim and play harmonica, fish, and eventually, welcome runaway slaves together.
Smith said Cyler and Howell developed such a strong chemistry that, during production, they had to be mindful they weren't being too friendly too quickly on camera.
“Audiences had to believe the development of their relationship,” Smith said. “It had to be earned. These two actors brought it home so beautifully.”
Smith first started working on “Freedom's Path” 12 years ago, and, with the help of Bellingham-based film production company Rocket Soul Studios, it debuted on screens across the U.S. Feb. 3, and will show at Barkley Regal Cinema through Wednesday, Feb. 15. A portion of all ticket sales will go to historically underfunded Black colleges in honor of Black History Month.
Smith said the idea to make the movie came from his love of history and his desire to tell a story about unknown and forgotten voices of an era that pitted Americans against each other for four bloody years. We know the stories of people like Abraham Lincoln, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, Smith said, but he was aiming to share more about the hopes, dreams and wishes of the everyday person.
The pathway to making “Freedom's Path” wasn't an easy one.
“I don't think there are words to properly convey the effort and struggle it took to get 'Freedom's Path' to this place,” Smith said. “Making movies is hard; making big-scope, period epic-style films on an indie budget is even harder. We made this film completely outside of the Hollywood system. Despite the polished look and feel, this is as indie of a film as they come.”
Although it was an endeavor to get the two-hour movie made, Smith said having Rocket Soul Studios founders AJ Winslow and James Pidgeon come on board helped the filmmaking process immensely. It didn't hurt that they'd worked on projects together already, and were longtime friends. Because of their support and talent, Smith said, it turned the making of the film into a “grand adventure filled with lots of laughter and warm memories.”
Props should also be given to late cast members Carol Sutton and Thomas Jefferson Byrd, respectively playing Caddy and Abner. The well-known character actors made their roles shine as Underground Railroad facilitators and foster parents to Kitch and many others. Sadly, Sutton died of COVID-19 during the pandemic, and Byrd was shot to death in 2020. For each of them, their roles in “Freedom's Path” were their last ones.
Although people may find fault with a white filmmaker telling the story of Black Americans who had to endure the horrors of slavery, the movie doesn't shy away from the racial inequity that separated our country's citizens — and continues to rear its ugly head. The story is told with care, and shows true friendship can help bridge gaps that seem uncrossable.
“More than history and the Civil War, etc., I wanted to tell a unifying story of humanity,” Smith said. “Characters who are worlds apart who must learn to see each other for the unique individuals that they are. [It's a] story about family, friendship and love. A story at the heart that shows what it has taken for us to have the freedom we enjoy today — and the high cost it has taken to achieve and maintain it.”
Multiple screenings of “Freedom's Path” take place daily through Wednesday, Feb. 15 at Regal Barkley Village, 3005 Cinema Place. Tickets are $12–$14.50. Info: freedomspathfilm.com.
This story was updated at 10:51 a.m. Wednesday, Feb. 8 to reflect extended showtimes.