Movie Review: “Cane River,” a landmark in African American indie cinema, newly restored

Horace B. Jenkins made his romantic melodrama “Cane River” a couple of years before Spike Lee made his breakthrough first film.

It arrived a decade before Julie Dash’s seminal indie drama of people and a place, “Daughters of the Dust.”

But Jenkins died just after finishing “Cane River” in 1982, and the movie never enjoyed an official release — until now.

It never had the chance to make an impact in its day, but as an artifact, it’s almost as interesting as a look back in time as it is a work of grown-up romance, serious cultural debate and forgotten history.

The story could not be more corny. Peter Metoyer (Richard Romain) is the handsome son of middle class members of the First Family of Cane River, Louisiana. They’re Creole, “the Forgotten People” of mixed-race of the region. His ancestors included the Frenchman who built Melrose plantation and the freed-slave woman Monsieur Metoyer married.

Peter’s tall, a star athlete fresh out of college who just told the New York Jet “No thanks” when they drafted him into the NFL.

“The closest I’ll get to the ‘pros’  is the prose I’ll put down with pencil on paper!”

Peter’s come home to a hero’s welcome in spite of that. He is independent enough to be “a farmer aspiring to be a poet.” He takes horseback rides around the old homestead, sits under and ancient oak and fills his journal with insipid “See the Morning Sun” verse.

And then he meets the lovely Maria Mathis (Tommye Myrick), who works in the tourist attraction that the old plantation has become. That raises eyebrows, even among the white busybodies who run the tours through this historic site.

“You Creoles are different people,” one huffs. “You wouldn’t associate with the likes” of Maria, her blue collar hatchery-worker brother, “Brother” (Ilunga Adell) or her mama (Carol Sutton).

Maria and her family are Negroes from Nachitoches (pronounced “NACKitote”), not Creoles. Their skin is dark. Fair-skinned Catholics like the Metoyers kept dark-skinned Mathis ancestors as slaves 125 years ago. No wonder they became Protestants.


That’s the conflict at the heart of the film — class, history and skin color. We see high school drop-out Brother struggling to get by at the hatchery and hear Maria’s plans to leave this provincial backwater, where everybody’s trapped in their social place, for Xavier University in New Orleans.

As for falling in love with Peter, Maria sees trouble, and not just from her “They’re not LIKE us” mother.

Peter may be smitten and determined to forget all that, but that’s a mountain to climb in 1982 Cane River and Natchitoches — “YEAH, I’m a Metoyer! Now what does being a damned Metoyer have to do with it?”

“Do you HAVE to curse?”

Yes, he says. Yes he does. Anything to lift this dialogue out of its incurable banality.

There are other points of conflict, but they’re barely addressed at all. The acting is often flat, and outside of the five leads (Barbara Tasker is Peter’s snobby sister), is downright amateurish. The period-popular rhythm & blues on the soundtrack (by Leroy Glover) is so quaint that it takes some getting used to.

The only way to look at this film is as part of the indie cinema that was being born around it at the time. Victor Nuñez, who went on to make “Ruby in Paradise” and “Ulee’s Gold,” made similarly geographically-authentic, if crude, films such as “Gal Young’Un” and “A Flash of Green” at around the same time.

Perhaps Jenkins would have gone on to make more sophisticated movies. When Peter takes Maria to visit her future college in New Orleans, Jenkins captures time-capsule-worthy images of a gritty, sordid Big Easy that was swallowed by tourism long before Katrina all but washed the city away.

He made a movie well within the rating standards of the day, a regional African American romance where characters joke “Free at last, free at last” about getting out of this backwater, where “slave quarters” were still standing and where college-educated people like Peter could start to protest about “my people” being erased from history by writers, academics and the little old white ladies who scrub the African American story right out of the big local plantation.

“Dated,” quaint and tentative it may be. But Jenkins’ themes and big ideas make “Cane River” a debut film with promise, ambition and social currency.


MPAA Rating: unrated, sexual situations, mild profanity

Cast: Richard Romain, Tommye Myrick, Carol Sutton, Ilunga Adell and Barbara Tasker

Credits: Written and directed by Horace B. Jenkins. An Oscilloscope Labs release.

Running time: 1:45

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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