'Cane River': Film Review

Cane River - Publicity Still - H 2020

Rediscovered and restored, Horace B. Jenkins' long-lost debut feature, a 1982 romantic drama centering on black characters in Louisiana and made independently, with a black crew, is receiving its first commercial release.

For nearly everyone involved in Cane River, on both sides of the camera, the indie feature turned out to be one of their few movie credits. That's particularly true, and sadly so, for writer-director Horace B. Jenkins, who died of a heart attack at age 41, two months before the film's scheduled theatrical bow. Thanks to preservation org IndieCollect, the Academy Film Archive and distributor Oscilloscope, his Louisiana-set romance, a modest charmer steeped in local color as well as matters of racial identity, receives its long-overdue spotlight, remastered and in all its flawed and exuberant first-feature glory.

The performances, most of them by non-pros, are uneven, and there's a sweet, self-conscious awkwardness to many of the movie's exchanges. But Jenkins (who served as script consultant on 1973's Shaft in Africa — his only other credit, according to IMDb) has suffused this love story with deep affection for his characters and the rural landscape. The prevailing mood is one of innocence (with a healthy dose of sexuality) as two young people, engagingly played by Richard Romain and Tommye Myrick, find their budding relationship complicated by the collective trauma of slavery and an inherited caste system among black Americans in the South.

Romain plays Peter Metoyer, whose last name turns out to be a blessing and a curse in northern Louisiana's Natchitoches Parish. The lanky college football star, a draft pick of the New York Jets, has turned his back on the pros and returned to his hometown to write poetry and work on his family's farm. Touring Melrose Plantation — and, notably, after he breaks away from the white guide and wanders on his own — he meets and quickly falls for another tour guide, Maria Mathis (Myrick), who's as eager to leave the sticks for college in New Orleans as Peter is happy to be back in the country.

What he doesn't at first tell Maria is that he's a direct descendant of the couple who built and owned the plantation, the formerly enslaved Marie Therese Coincoin and her French husband. That makes him not just a scion of a property-owning family, but also, in the local culture, a black Creole, or, in the disparaging lingo of some, a "half-breed." Maria gets a cacophonous earful of that lingo from her brother (Ilunga Adell) and overprotective mother (Carol Sutton — who, alone among the principal players, went on to have a long acting career, still going strong).

Working-class Maria confronts Peter, a member of the gentry whether he likes it or not, with her newly gleaned information — specifically, that his family owned slaves and collaborated with the Confederate Army. In the argument that ensues and winds through the rest of the story, Jenkins' screenplay directly references the 1977 book The Forgotten People, a study of "Cane River's Creoles of Color" whose historical revelations would still be reverberating, a few years after their publication, for the characters in the film. In a poignant and eye-opening retort, Peter insists that he's proud of his African heritage, explaining to Maria that when he was growing up, the sight of a black person on TV was always a thrill — an event — for him and his family.

But something in Peter is awakened by Maria's grievances and Gary B. Mills' book. "You've got to know where you've been to know where you're going," he tells his sister (Barbara Tasker), who's not interested, and his widowed father (Lloyd La Cour), who has more pressing matters on his mind: The family is losing its land to a rigged court system. Jenkins addresses the precariousness of black Americans' land ownership (an ongoing problem) head-on, casting New Orleans civil rights attorney Lolis E. Elie as himself; he's the lawyer Peter consults about reclaiming family property that was stolen under cover of law.

Jenkins' characters grapple with the fallout of history, but they're fully rooted in their contemporary world. The dialogue includes shout-outs to Gil Scott-Heron and Earth, Wind & Fire, and several sequences are music-driven set pieces, with Leroy Glover's songs, and their very literal scene-specific lyrics, subbing for conversation and playing a key role. Arranged and sung by Phillip Manuel, with additional vocals by Anita Pichon, the songs have a smooth R&B-pop sensibility, with an undertow of country nostalgia, that's fully in sync with the narrative.

But music of a different sort, more spontaneous than produced, invigorates a late sequence. The central duo take each other to Sunday services — first his Catholic church, then her Baptist one, where worship is capped by a knockout gospel number featuring soloist Renee Courtney. This is a performance that would have been lost to the ages if not for Jenkins and cinematographer Gideon Manasseh.

The documentary aspect of Cane River is powerful, offering fascinating glimpses of the title burg's horse farms as well as its antebellum plantation and the faces of revelers at a neighborhood bar. Farther afield, a road trip to New Orleans for Maria and Peter provides additional regional detail while deepening the romantic relationship. Though the star-crossed lovers must verbalize much of Jenkins' ideas and commentary, they do so with a vulnerability that makes them more than mere mouthpieces. And however static some of the scenes may feel, the writer-director gives all his characters engagingly human inconsistencies (Maria's highly opinionated brother, for one, is a hatchery employee and fitness fanatic who also likes to get drunk).

Like many a pair before them, Maria and Peter are discovering each other at the same time as they're discovering themselves, asserting their independence and turning away from family expectations. When, in the opening scene, Peter purchases his one-way ticket home from his presumed career in the NFL, the ticket seller says, "I don't believe I've heard of Cane River." Until now, most of us could say the same thing. But, luckily, a place that holds the distinction of being one of the nation's first free communities of color will now be known to many more people, as will the film that bears its name. Jenkins' one and only feature weaves living history, charged and messy, into a homespun, hopeful tale. It's impossible not to wonder about — and wish for — what he might have done next.

Production companies: A, H.B.J. Productions/The HBJ Legacy Foundation production in association with Indie Collect
Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories
Cast: Richard Romain, Tommye Myrick, Ilunga Adel, Lloyd La Cour, Barbara Tasker, Carol Sutton
Director-screenwriter-producer: Horace B. Jenkins
Executive producers: Doris Rhodes, Duplain Rhodes Jr.
Director of photography: Gideon Manasseh
Art director: Joseph Moran
Editor: Debi Moore
Music: Leroy Glover, Phillip Manuel

104 minutes