For most of its running time, “The Secret Path” is a simplistic, terribly earnest story of race relations in the Old South until it turns into something far stranger — a tonally flat drama that plays like an after-school special about white slavery. Thanks to Della Reese’s star power, Ossie Davis’ sturdy presence and the film’s scheduling — Sunday after Reese’s series “Touched by an Angel” — this should easily draw faithful viewers, but they’ll likely find the story more cliched and condescendingly preachy than anything “Angel’s” writers would dare dream up.
A trite, unnecessary framing sequence finds a grown woman overhearing her daughter dismiss a schoolmate as “white trash”; she immediately takes her to the shack of her birth and the film-length flashback begins, including details to which she’d not possibly be privy.
Jo-Ann begins life as an unwanted infant born in the rural South of the ’30s to an unmarried trollop, Marie Foley (Crystal Bernard, disguised by ratty brunette hair).
She is summarily disposed of in the woods by Marie’s moonshine-swilling cracker of a father, Hank (Ron White), but mysteriously, the infant returns to the Foley doorstep, with a gold cross around her neck and a stern note warning of God’s all-seeing eye (the mystery as to the identity of the Good Samaritan is no mystery at all).
Things don’t get any better as the child grows, unsteadily, to age 7 (Yvonne Zima) with hokey hopes of “goin’ to Kokomo” with her mom and a soldier, a dream soon quashed when the nature of her mother’s character comes to light.
Her bullying uncle Bobby, a mere year older than she, has his future as a drunken abuser already clear; when she tells him his threatening doesn’t carry the same weight as his father, he ominously replies, “It will.”
Eventually, the slow and awkward girl is befriended by the saintly Honey (Reese) and her kindly junkman husband Too Tall (Davis). Honey teaches Jo-Ann homespun homilies about tomatoes, tears and jump ropes, and feeds and educates her when others have, literally, thrown her to the dogs.
There’s a shocking moment when Jo-Ann innocently, and out of ignorance, calls Honey by a racial epithet, but that’s quickly smoothed over, and a title card announces we’re now “seven years later.”
Jo-Ann (Yvonne’s older sister, Madeline) is now poised and impossibly well-adjusted (on the other hand, none of the adult characters have aged appreciably), and it’s unexplained as to how her grandfather has never reacted to her seemingly open relationship with Honey and Too Tall or how the schoolkids have never thought to taunt her about her mother’s flagrant indiscretions.
Instead, Hank’s itching to recruit Jo-Ann to join her mom in the family business — dressing up in red silk and luring soldiers out of a ramshackle tavern, then rousting them for their money.
How they’ve been able to pull off this scam in the same location for as long as they have without our fighting boys getting wise — or how the gimpy Hank is able to outmatch four servicemen when his ruse is discovered — is likewise left unexplained. Her resistance nearly leads to tragedy, but all, of course, is put right by Honey in the end.
Reese has this brand of empathetic, down-home piety down pat, and Davis elevates the material in the time he’s onscreen.
Bernard simply seems to be dabbling, as if looking unglamorous is enough for such a gritty role. White brings nothing new to the role of an embittered Southern racist, though he handles his one moment of reflection competently enough.
The Zima sisters’ characterizations adhere to the demands of the script, which unfortunately lets them down. Martin Luther King Jr.’s daughter, Yolanda King, has a small role as a minister’s wife.
“The Secret Path” is a bland, overtired evocation of Southern racism and misogyny, improbably tempered with a sensitive, piano-heavy score that would be more at home cueing emotions in a production for children.
It’s a measure of this film’s lack of creative energy that it tries to play not one but three scenes involving an apron for pathos. Tech credits betray constraints of both budget and imagination.