Horace B. Jenkins’s Cane River (opening in Brooklyn this Friday) is one of those stories of cinematic archaeology where the backstory threatens to overtake the film itself. Written, produced, and directed by Mr. Jenkins, shot on location in Louisiana with an all-African-American cast and crew in 1981, it never saw a proper theatrical release; Jenkins only lived long enough to see it premiere in New Orleans, dying shortly thereafter (he was only 42). Long thought lost, a negative resurfaced in 2013, was painstakingly restored, and is now getting an art-house release from Oscilloscope Laboratories. That is a hell of a story.
The story onscreen isn’t quite as compelling, but how could it be? The kind of back-to-the-hometown, simple-pleasures, small-town-romance tale that would subsequently become a Hallmark movie mainstay, it stars Richard Romain as Peter Metoyer, a well-regarded college football player who turns down his pro draft offer (“They asked me, I just wasn’t interested”) to return to the Bayou community where he grew up.
“I didn’t like the way I was being treated,” he explains. “I felt like a ham on a hook.” The commodification of black athletes – a topic that’s only grown more present in the national conversation, particularly after last year’s High Flying Bird – is not only prescient. It’s narratively pointed, as much of the film centers around an old plantation and its history.
Though the film is ostensibly a romance between Peter and an ambitious local woman, Maria (Tommye Myrick), the real subject is the tension in this historic “free community of color” between its lighter-skinned, well-to-do Creoles and darker-skinned, working-class African-Americans. That tension manifests itself in the central relationship – Peter is Creole, Maria is not – and when their blossoming romance is threatened by arguments over whether his ancestors owned “the biggest slave plantation in these parts” and collaborated with the Confederate Army, it’s a reminder of how history reverberates through these communities, and is, so often, simply inescapable. Cane River is ultimately about grappling, and coming to terms with, that history.
Myrick and Romain have a lovely, relaxed chemistry, which is necessary; much of her story concerns her testy relationship with her disapproving brother and their domineering mother, whose ultimatums and harassment reduce this poor grown woman to sneaking around like a teenager. Their arguments, particularly a big blow-up near the film’s end, can veer Jenkins’s otherwise naturalistic storytelling into church-play theatrics, and there are other issues: dialogue that sometimes skids into cliché (“There’s a great big world out there for me, and I wanna see it!”); a reliance on music-video style montages (the narrative stops dead for not one, but two separate New Orleans travelogues), with an R&B soundtrack full of comically on-the-nose lyric-to-action match-ups; and an ending that is somehow both drawn out and abrupt.
None of which devalues the picture in the slightest. When Peter steps off the bus in its opening scenes, the whole town gathers to meet him (complete with a big “WELCOME HOME” banner), and the film feels like that kind of community collaboration. Its low budget certainly shows; contemporary indie-devouring audiences should be aware that it’s a throwback to an earlier time, when simply completing a motion pictures was such a Herculean (and prohibitively expensive) task that blown lines, technical gaffes, and amateurish acting were not only forgivable, but expected.
But Jenkins milks the built-in production values of its serene locations, and coaxes warm performances out of much of its cast. More importantly, it plays now like an oasis, during one of the driest periods of African-American filmmaking; part of the reason Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (a film with some of the same flaws) was received so enthusiastically four years later was because independent black film was all but non-existent, and portrayals of black romance and sensuality were even rarer. Cane River has both, within a vivid portrait of small-town, working-class African-American life – something we still, sadly, rarely see in the cinema.