in Criterion Month

Cane River (1982)

Like so many of the movies I’m writing about this month, Cane River is unique and ahead of its time and was so close to being a big deal, but ended up being lost for decades. Its easy to imagine an alternate reality where a movie about a Romeo and Juliet-esque forbidden romance deeply steeped in an interesting, under-explored part of American history from a Black director and cast and crew could have set the world on fire. Indeed, it sounds like Cane River was a hit in its few screenings in 1982, when taste makers like Richard Pryor and Roger Ebert raved about the film. But writer-director Horace B. Jenkins’ sudden death put a stop to Cane River‘s planned 1983 release, turning this potential landmark into myth until it was restored earlier this year.

Peter Metoyer (Richard Romain) returns to his hometown of Cane River, Louisiana to a hero’s welcome. He was a star athlete his entire life and even managed to get drafted by the New York Jets, but at the last minute decided to throw it all away and work on his father’s farm while becoming a poet. He’s still got an athletes swagger, but it’s mixed with an easy-going nature that’s shown in how he can spend his days riding horses and writing about the morning sun; he’s super hot. One day, Peter decides to learn a bit more about his family’s history by taking a tour of a local historical site, where he meets tour guide Maria (Tommye Myrick). The couple have instant chemistry and he begins pursuing her even though she’s on the verge of moving away to go to college (that does read like she’s underage, Maria is 22).

As if the time limit didn’t put enough pressure on this romance, an additional wrinkle is Peter’s heritage. Hundreds of years ago, before the Louisiana Purchase, the Creoles were any French people born in the territory, black and white. So when Louisiana became part of the United States, families like Peter’s ancestors remained as a uniquely free community in the South. Making things even more uncomfortable, families like the Metoyers who owned large plots of large actually relied on slave labor and even supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. Even though more than a hundred years have passed, those deep wounds still create a rift between Peter and Maria, as their unique perspectives on their culture represent a mighty gulf they’ll have to close.

This difference is seen in the couple’s families. Peter’s is friendly and supportive, the only real problem they seem to have is with a lawyer who may have swindled land from their elderly aunt before she died – a subplot that adds texture to Peter’s experience but is of so little importance the movie doesn’t even resolve it. Maria’s got it much harder, as her family has sacrificed much to get her into college and are worried she’ll throw it all away. Her father had passed away years ago, which forced her mother to take demeaning work and her brother to throw away his promising football career to start working at a local hatchery. They’ve both given up on their own lives in favor of trying to provide for Maria, and worry that Peter will use, abuse, and leave her like so many powerful men have done to women like Maria for centuries.

It’s probably obvious that I found Cane River‘s subject matter fascinating, I loved an opportunity to watch smart characters deal with a complicated topic I knew nothing about. This emphasis on Creole history is coupled with the movie’s strongest feature, it’s setting. Shot on location in Cane River and New Orleans, Cane River natural diversity was consistently alluring, I never once doubted that Peter would want to be here rather than in New York. Frankly, Jenkins’ strength is not his shot selection, often just leaving the camera on a trip in one static shot for a whole scene. Similarly, the acting is pretty stiff, especially since Romain was a first time (and only time) actor. But I did’t really notice it because the writing is strong enough, the acting sincere enough, and the landscapes absolutely gorgeous.

Speaking of gorgeous, oh my god the soundtrack. Cane River has the dad rock-iest soundtrack I’ve ever heard. The music from Roy Glover and vocalist Phillip Manuel is hilariously descriptive, even though allegedly most of it wasn’t written for the movie. Things like the lyrics “garbage collection / no parking selection” syncing up with Peter and Maria not being able to find parking due to a garbage truck in the road are too funny. It’s is frankly a crime that no one has put any of the music on YouTube for me to share with you guys here. Trust me, it’s the best and will instantly make you wear your pants four inches higher and start thinking about mowing the lawn before it rains.

Cane River would have been Horace B. Jenkins’ feature debut, but he already had won Emmy Awards for his work on TV and was a gifted documentarian. It’s a shame that we didn’t end up in the reality where we got to see more of what Jenkins could do. Perhaps we can glimpse some of that in the work of his son, Sacha Jenkins who has also had success making his own documentaries, like last year’s Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men. If anything, this marathon is giving me anxiety about the great artists who are going uncelebrated today. What great movie is being lost right now that we’ll all go on to celebrate in 40 years?