For Bellevue film director Brett Smith, the release of his debut feature “Freedom’s Path” has been a journey over a decade in the making.
“I have spent a number of years writing the script and I self-financed it,” said Smith. “I sent over 4,000 cold emails and had to convince people. At the time, it was depressing and hard but it was one of the biggest blessings because we weren’t beholden to anyone else.”
A historical drama set during the American Civil War, “Freedom’s Path” is about a white Union soldier, played by Gerran Howell, who deserts the war and is rescued by a free Black man, played by R.J. Cyler, and his friends who are involved with the Underground Railroad.
“It’s a story of brotherhood, story of humanity, story of American heritage,” said Smith. “Everything that we did was historical fiction steeped in historical reality.”
According to Smith, it is the first narrative film that centers around free African-Americans living in the south leading up to and during the Civil War.
“When it comes to movies set in this era, typically you’re only seeing African-Americans who are actively enslaved. There is not a single enslaved person in this film,” said Smith, who found inspiration for his script from reading first-hand reports from the 1930s and 1940s, when federal writers recorded the stories of those who lived in the south during slavery.
“According to census documents from the eve of the Civil War, there were over 250,000 freed African-Americans living in the south — it was really fascinating because we’re not talking some obscure facts,” he said.
Smith studied cinematography and film production at the University of Washington but when he was a student at Bellevue High School, he say he was more into sports.
“I was not one of those kids that said I’d be a filmmaker but I would make these spoof videos and during my junior year I wanted to tell dramatic stories,” said Smith. “My friends got sick of it so I had to branch out and look for actors.”
Smith went on to start his own production company with the goal of telling stories that inspired him, which led him to write, produce and direct “Freedom’s Path.”
“’Freedom’s Path’ comes from a deep love I have of history and American history,” said Smith. “We know about the big monumental characters like Harriet Tubman, Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, but for me, I’m interested in the unknown person. What were their hopes and dreams? I wanted to flip a narrative of an African-American character needing to be rescued by a white person since in this movie, it’s a Union soldier who is rescued.”
After making its film festival debut in 2022, the film went on to win several awards, including Best Feature Film at San Diego International Film Festival and Director’s Choice Best Feature Film at Gig Harbor Film Festival.
“It has a very polished look, but it’s a true, true indie film, “Smith said. “Our two lead producers are Bellingham-based and our cinematographer had been there too for forever. The core team was PNW and we brought in actors from all over the world.”
“Freedom’s Path” was theatrically released Feb. 3 and has a limited run at select theaters across the country, including the Regal theater at The Landing in Renton.
“I am super excited that the film is right there at The Landing,” Smith said. “I’ve gone to The Landing many, many times.”
The full opening weekend box office, and 10% of the rest of the films’ earnings, will be donated to underrepresented Historically Black Colleges and Universities, says Smith.
“We’ve partnered with HBCU GO,” he said, referring to Byron Allen’s free-streaming digital platform and the leading media provider for every Historically Black College and University in the United States. “It’s important to have an impact and given that the theme in the film is freedom, we think that freedom and education are important.”