Cane River (1982)

  • Year: 1982
  • Released: 07 Feb 2020
  • Country: United States
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  • Available in: 720p, 1080p,
  • Language: English
  • MPA Rating: N/A
  • Genre: Drama, Romance
  • Runtime: 104 min
  • Writer: Horace Jenkins
  • Director: Horace Jenkins
  • Cast: Richard Romain, Tommye Myrick, Ilunga Adell
  • Keywords: returning to roots, poetic athlete, creole vs. black,
100% – Critics
45% – Audience

Cane River Storyline

Written, produced, and directed by the late Emmy Award-winning Horace B. Jenkins, financed by New Orleans’ Rhodes family, and crafted by an entirely African American cast and crew – CANE RIVER is a historically informed love story set in Louisiana’s Natchitoches Parish, a “free community of color.” Aspiring writer and hopeless romantic Peter – former athlete and scion of an elite Creole family – returns to his hometown and immediately falls for a breathtaking historical tour guide, Maria. Maria’s disenfranchised, darker-skinned family disapprove of Peter’s family and condemn their burgeoning romance while highlighting the painful legacy of colorism in their tightly-knit community. The lovers must work through Peter’s contentious family legacy as privileged, former slave-owning, light-skinned Creoles if they want their romance to survive.—Mae Moreno

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Cane River Movie Reviews

A fascinating rediscovered work

Filmed in the early 1980s, but receiving only a limited release following its directors early death, ‘Cane River’ has recently been restored and released. As many have noted, it’s a snapshot of careers that never blossomed, of a moment that never came to fruition; a tantalising snapshot into a largely non-existent alternative history of African-American cinema. The film has few parallels; at once modest and ambitious, it’s a love story about a relationship’s development over divides of class, colorism that reckons with the historical origins and personal dramas of such divides in a way that’s neither didactic nor sentimentalised, that treats its audience as seriously as it treats its subjects, that knows that history is not simply a series of grand events but part of the texture of everyday life.

***Spoiler alert-plot summary*** The film begins as Peter Metoyer (Richard Romain) returns home to Cane River, has given up a career as a football star in New York in order to attempt to become a poet. Visiting the famed Melrose plantation–according to local lore, founded by his ancestor, the freed slave Marie-Therese Coin Coin/Metoyer–he strikes up conversation with tour guide Maria Mathis (Tommye Myrick) from a working-class Black community in general looked down on by his own. The film spends much of the time charting their blossoming relationship, horse-back riding, swimming, strolling and gently flirting, soundtracked to a series of lyrical and gently unfolding songs which often seem to dictate the pace of scenes, rather than vice versa. (While I’ve seen reviewers liken these sequences to music videos, one might more usefully call the film a musical as much as anything else.) Conflict arises as Maria’s family forbids her from seeing Peter–the Creole Metoyers sided with the Confederacy and owned slaves, and her mother fears the relationship will see her abandoned, giving up her beckoning career and throwing her life away. The two are at opposite trajectories–Maria about to depart Cane River, which she finds stultifying, bounded by the limited opportunities determined by race, class and the conservatism of her elders, for studies at Xavier University, Peter returning to Cane River as a return to his somewhat idealised image of land, community and poetry (an idealisation which, as the film both implicitly and explicitly states, results from skin-color privilege). The conflict is not only racialised but gendered–there’s a grain of truth to Maria’s mother’s criticisms, as she appears to acknowledge in an unexpected scene late in the film, the more emotionally affecting for its suddenness and subtlety, in which she appears to break off the relationship for the sake of her independence. In mirror to the film’s opening, we end as Maria departs for Xavier, telling Peter at the station that this is goodbye; while this is contradicted by a letter in voiceover immediately asserting that the relationship can be saved, that her career and independent trajectory can be balanced with the domestic to allow for a ‘happy ending’, the questions are left open.

Understandably, the film has the production values and technical variability of an independently produced, first time effort: shots tend to be held longer than they might, and it’s clear that judicious editing here and there would have tightened the film’s structure without sacrificing its deliberately meandering pace. In comparison to work from a similar period by the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers, oriented towards an avant-garde praxis in which the realist demands of conventional filmmaking were not only sidestepped but actively challenged, the film is conventionally shot, and inevitably falls short of the technical standards a higher budget and greater experience would have allowed (limitations determined by the racialised exclusions the American film industry has always performed). But other aspects of what some have seen as the film’s defects are arguably part of its intentions, subtler than such criticism would give them credit for. Thus, one review I’ve seen argues that the film is split between the gentle flirtations of the love story and the political debates it presents concerning colorism, land ownership and the complex question of African roots amongst communities of colour along the Cane River (centring around discussions of Gary B. Mills’ then-recently published ‘The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color’). Yet I’d argue that this split dynamic is deliberately a part of the way the film’s narrative has been constructed. Jenkins renders it impossible to understand the love story without the politics, or the politics without the love story. The politics are filtered through the Romeo-and-Juliet clash between Peter’s, aspirational, land-owning, bourgeois family, descendants of Marie-Therese Coin Coin / Metoyer who, as freed slaves, ‘gens de coluers libres’, themselves owned slaves, and Maria’s working-class, hard-up community, neatly illustrated by the respective visits to Peter’s stolid Catholic church and Maria’s musically-saturated Baptist church near the end of the film. Yet the film never sets these up as a simple/simplistic clash of opposites (note the neat echo between the scenes, as the couple giggle at old women asleep at the back of their respective churches).) Likewise, view the film as simply a political tract and you miss the point that these complex questions of colorism, legacy and the structure of communities are experienced and worked out in personal relationships as well as political activism, and that the one informs the other. (Community here might be understood along the lines of family, the couple, free communities, land ownership, athletics careers which fetishize and commodify the athletes they supposedly liberate, Northern aspiration vs Southern hospitality, etc). View the relationship as a straightforward romantic drama and it becomes banal: a series of pretty, pastoral shots soundtracked to a series of of-its-time songs. Yet the refusal to lurch, as one reviewer puts it, ‘from crisis to crisis’, instead letting the tensions in the relationship play out a slower pace, and the naturalistic, affectation-free interactions between the leads, neither of whom were or went on to be professional actors, imparts a quality you’d never see in a non-indie film, one that’s frequently affecting and affective. In uniting love story and politics, Jenkins also challenges the limitation of filmic depictions of Black communities to northern, urban communities, as either tool of worthy pity/abjection or insurrectionary swagger; moving South, presenting a story in which white characters needs not appear, and in which the politicised nature of everyday life is presented with an unhurried, relaxed manner that doesn’t betray the seriousness of such issues. As such, while the film might remain a monument to potential rather than fully-realised work, it’s richer and more moving that any number of bigger-budgeted films, and well worth your time exploring.

cane river

Hate to write a less than fulsome review of a serious indie film whose first time director died right after completing it, but one cannot deny that “Cane River” is a potentially interesting examination of class differences within black American culture that is lost amid a plethora of Louisiana travelogues and extended love scenes set to cloying late 70s/early 80s Barry White type soul ballads rather than, as an earlier reviewer noted, Creole or Cajun tunes that would mirror its setting. Also not helping things are rather stilted performances from the two leads. Give it a generous C plus

Great Story, Horrible Acting

The movie itself wasn’t too bad. The acting was just super bad.