A Forgotten Summer Romance: Our Review of ‘Cane River’

Posted in Movies, VOD/iTunes/DigitalDownload by - July 09, 2020
A Forgotten Summer Romance: Our Review of ‘Cane River’

Making a film is hard. Getting said film seen can be even harder. This was precisely the case for Cane River, a modest indie flick from the early ‘80s that is finally seeing the light of day almost 40 years after its initial completion. A delicate rural Louisiana-set romance between an African-American couple of differing class backgrounds, Cane River was the feature directorial debut of Horace Jenkins, an Emmy-winning television documentarian who produced a variety of work for PBS. But after only a few screenings in 1982, Jenkins suddenly died of a heart attack at the age of 42 and the film failed to gain distribution, eventually lapsing into obscurity. Thankfully, the restoration wizards at IndieCollect (who recently brought Nancy Kelly’s underseen Western Thousand Pieces of Gold back to the public consciousness) have dug deep to bring this wonderful gem back to life, distributing through Oscilloscope Laboratories so that film fans everywhere can finally see this benchmark of early American independent cinema.

Jenkins’s work in television seems readily apparent right from the start with an opening credits sequence that unfolds with the cheery music and bright montage editing of any number of sitcoms from the era, as we follow twenty-something aspiring poet Peter Metoyer (Richard Romain) on his bus trip back home to Cane River, Louisiana from New York City, where he’s been attending school for the last several years. Upon his arrival, he is greeted with a crowd of cheering friends, family and fans – his own personal rock star homecoming. The reason for all the hubbub being that Peter is part of an affluent Creole family, a descendant from the well-known Metoyer clan who, a century or more prior, were able to flip their slave status and acquire land and wealth of their own in a hostile South.

Knowing he wants to write but unsure of what direction to take, Peter spends his days reacquainting himself with his hometown, eventually wandering on to a tour of a plantation nearby. It is here where he meets Maria (Tommye Myrick), a young tour guide about to go off to college in New Orleans. She is warm and bubbly and the pair are immediately smitten with each other, beginning a summer courtship. But not everyone is so impressed with Peter, particularly Maria’s family who come from a more disadvantaged background. Seeing Peter’s lineage as traitors who abandoned their fellow Africans (while controversially siding with the Confederacy), Maria’s mother wants the romance to end immediately, causing Maria to doubt her newfound attraction and how it will ultimately fit into her long-term plans.

With a deceptively simple set-up, Cane River becomes a deeply heartfelt meditation on the forever-lingering colonial traumas of the deep South and the class prejudices that exist between Black communities of opposing backgrounds. As a lighter-skinned Creole man of privilege, Peter has a cocky, holier-than-thou attitude for much of the film, which makes him charismatic but also, frankly, kind of a jerk at times. At the same time, his family still isn’t worthy enough to be on the same plane as the white population, and he spends a chunk of the film trying to get back his family’s land which is constantly under attack from wealthier white buyers. Being caught in this strange no man’s land slowly starts to chip away at his golden boy veneer.

Maria, on the other hand, must deal with her family’s disapproval of her new boyfriend but also with her own path in life. Already painfully attuned to the racism inherent to her environment, she desperately wants to leave for college and pursue an education and a greater sense of purpose. And while Peter may distract her temporarily, even asking her to ditch her school plans so that they can have a shotgun wedding, Maria refreshingly sticks to her values, reaffirming her strength as a darker-skinned African American woman who has excelled academically despite the system being set up against her.

For its striking themes and social commentary, Cane River really was ahead of its time, coinciding with the L.A. Rebellion filmmaking movement but operating on a wavelength all its own. Filmed with an all-Black cast and crew and financed entirely by the wealthy Rhodes family, owners of a funeral business that served Black families almost exclusively since as far back as the Civil War, Jenkins was trying to change the perspective that had always dominated the American film landscape (and still continues to). But even just taken as a love story, Cane River shines – Romain and Myrick (in their only significant acting appearances) have tons of chemistry and it’s a pleasure to watch them tentatively navigate their new relationship, with Jenkins ending their story on a great moment that’s sure to leave you with a satisfyingly huge smile. Shooting on 35 mm, Jenkins lingers on the beauty of the natural environment surrounding his characters, creating a lush atmosphere that’s as easy to get lost in as a hot summer’s day.

Cane River is somewhat reminiscent of Losing Ground, another 1982 independent film from Black filmmaker Kathleen Collins. Eerily enough, that film also fell into obscurity when Collins tragically passed away at the age of 46, after only a few festival screenings of what was also her feature directorial debut. Since being restored and re-released by Milestone Films in 2016, she was finally given the attention she so rightfully deserved. Hopefully, Jenkins can now receive the same fate.

This post was written by
After his childhood dream of playing for the Mighty Ducks fell through, Mark turned his focus to the glitz and glamour of the movies. He's covered the extensive Toronto film scene for online outlets and is a filmmaker himself, currently putting the final touches on a low-budget (okay, no-budget) short film to be released in the near future. You can also find him behind the counter as product manager of Toronto's venerable film institution, Bay Street Video.
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