CANE RIVER (Horace B. Jenkins, 1982)
BAMfilm, BAM Rose Cinemas
30 Lafayette Ave. between Ashland Pl. & St. Felix St.
After nearly forty years, Horace B. Jenkins’s Cane River is finally being released theatrically, playing at BAM Rose Cinemas from February 7 to 20, not uncoincidentally during Black History Month. Shortly after its premiere in 1982, Jenkins died at the age of forty-two and the film disappeared without distribution. The original negative was found in 2013 in the DuArt Film & Video Vault and is now screening in a new 4K digital restoration overseen by IndieCollect. Cane River is a touching love story set amid colorism, classism, misogynoir, and the far-reaching tentacles of slavery in Natchitoches Parish in Louisiana, where tensions between blacks, whites, and Creoles have festered for hundreds of years.
A cast of mostly first-time actors (many in their only film) is led by Richard Romain as Peter Metoyer, a college football star who returns to his rural hometown of Cane River instead of pursuing a gridiron career; he was drafted by the New York Jets but would rather be a poet and a writer, choosing to help run the family farm with his father (Lloyd La Cour) and sister, Dominique (Barbara Tasker). One day he is visiting the Melrose plantation — where his ancestor Marie Thérèse Coincoin became a freed slave and successful land owner who married French merchant Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, had ten children, and controversially kept slaves as well — when he meets eighteen-year-old Maria Mathis (Tommye Myrick), who is getting ready to leave for college at Xavier. She is reading The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color by Gary B. Mills, a book partly about the very real Metoyer family history and the Melrose plantation. She is so desperate to get away from the boring and staid Cane River while he has come back to make a calm, easygoing life there. Despite his being a Catholic Creole and her being a black southern Baptist, they fall in love, which angers her mother (Carol Sutton), but Maria doesn’t want to stay, adamant to not get caught in the trap her brother (Ilunga Adell) is in, working in the hatchery, getting drunk, and having no perceptible future. “What is more poetic than planting a seed and watching it grow?” Peter asks Maria, both filled with hope.
A response to the blaxploitation movies of the 1970s and partially inspired by the true story of Jenkins’s longtime partner, Carol Balthazar, who served as a consultant on the project, Cane River is a film entrenched in dichotomy, mixing fact and fiction to explore the inherent differences between the country and the city, in the expectations of men versus women, of factory work and higher education, of flashy convertibles speeding down the highway and horseback rides along a beautiful lake, and, most centrally, the color of one’s skin. “You Creoles are different people,” Maria tells Peter, but that statement is more loaded than she realizes. The low-budget film is too static; cinematographer Gideon Manasseh’s camera seldom moves (although it does focus on many gorgeous natural landscapes), and editor Debi Moore can’t establish a consistent rhythm and pace. The acting is often less than compelling, the script can be overly earnest, and Leroy Glover’s score features songs with lyrics that often repeat exactly what you’re seeing onscreen. But there’s a deep-rooted charm to the film, which explores topics that are still hot-button issues today, especially colorism. “Black folks don’t stand a chance,” one character says, evoking the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement. It’s important to have this film back in circulation, and BAM is celebrating its return by hosting four Q&As opening weekend with Romain, Myrick, Jenkins’s son Sacha, and, at one, his daughter Dominique.