Review: Cane River Grapples with the Burden of Collective History

The film’s awkwardness is expressive of the pain and confusion of wrestling with truths that shake one’s conception of identity.

Cane River
Photo: Oscilloscope Laboratories

Like far too many films by African-American directors, Horace B. Jenkins’s Cane River was once long considered lost. The film was produced in between other landmark explorations of race in America, initially arriving in theaters several years after Bill Gunn’s Ganja & Hess, nearly the same time as Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground, and just a few years before Spike Lee’s feature-length debut, She’s Gotta Have It. Jenkins’s production lacks the sophistication of those other films, but it has a beauty and ambition that marked Jenkins as a promising talent. He would die at 42 shortly after completing Cane River.

Many popular cinema romances, especially those centered around white couples, take for granted how the protagonists’ backgrounds inform their romantic life. There may be trivial complications, usually due to scrambled identities, but things are usually understood to work out as if by predestination. By contrast, the films of the African-American new wave of the 1970s and ’80s are often about the complications themselves, rather than the catharsis of hooking up. In this tradition, Cane River is composed of a series of conversations about the grip that history, namely of racist atrocities, has on the present day.

Peter Metoyer (Richard Romain) returns to his Louisiana hometown from college and is greeted by friends and family as a conquering hero. We learn that he could’ve played for the Jets, but he was uncomfortable with how he was treated during the N.F.L. draft as a “specimen”—one of the film’s many bracingly blunt observations about race and class. Peter now wants to be a poet, and his prose, in a cleverly metatextual touch, mirrors the lyrics of the film’s songs, which often accompany cheesy montages of Peter flirting and canoodling with Maria (Tommye Myrick), whom he meets while touring an old Melrose plantation.

Peter is a light-skinned Catholic Creole while Maria and her family are darker-skinned Baptists from Nachitoches. Peter’s family was more prosperous than Maria’s at the height of American slavery, running the Melrose plantation and owning slaves, including members of Maria’s family. These events may be 200 years in the past, but they’re very much on the minds of Maria’s family as she and Peter grow friendly. Peter is poignantly split over this legacy, feeling shame over his Metoyer clan’s use of slaves, as well as pride over their ability to own land, which has been recently stolen from them by a white attorney.

This is an urgent and robust framework for a romantic drama, and Jenkins contrasts his searing dialogue with lyrical images of the Louisiana countryside. The nostalgic sunlit compositions—of lakes, farms, horses, flowers—suggest an Eden that’s understood to be complicated by modern sin. Moments of Peter riding through the country on horseback while contemplating his terrible poetry evoke reverie as well as undeniable privilege. While Peter drifts around daydreaming, Maria’s brother, Brother (Ilunga Adel), works long hours at the hatchery, later medicating his frustrations with barbecue and beer. This segue into Brother’s life is among Cane River’s most powerful sequences, illustrating the ingrained cultural differences between Peter and Maria’s families. (Adel also gives the film’s greatest performance, his aggressive physicality suggesting years of resentment and disappointment.)

Jenkins, though, is so obsessed by notions of history and legacy that he under-dramatizes Peter and Maria’s romance, which is often rendered in easy shorthand. The mix of political talking points with soap-operatic sentimentality is evocatively uncomfortable and also somewhat disappointing. In Losing Ground, the historical, personal, and political elements of the narrative are fully intertwined, allowing for a seemingly effortless refutation of insipid relationship narratives. By contrast, Cane River is governed by an awkward alternating structure, between speechifying and flirting, that may leave you wanting for more moments in which Peter and Maria are simply allowed to be—moments which tend to belong to Brother. This awkwardness is revealing in itself however, expressing the pain and confusion of wrestling with truths that shake one’s conception of identity.

 Cast: Richard Romain, Tommye Myrick, Carol Sutton, Ilunga Adell, Barbara Tasker  Director: Horace B. Jenkins  Screenwriter: Horace B. Jenkins  Distributor: Oscilloscope Laboratories  Running Time: 102 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1982

Chuck Bowen

Chuck Bowen's writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Atlantic, The AV Club, Style Weekly, and other publications.

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