Over the span of decades, the question of “What does it mean to be Black in America?” has endured as a highpoint of cultural conversation in the United States. As mainstream art continues to widen its parameters, permitting the voices of disparate cultures to contribute to the discussion, the answer to this social inquest has adopted a myriad of answers, especially within the realm of cinema.
Regrettably, even within the cinephile community, the widely held opinion of Black films in the 1970s and 1980s is frequently attributed to the Blaxploitation craze, which admittedly function within their own exaggerated and endlessly entertaining domain of social commentary. However, the typical film fan would not possess a familiarity with Gordon Parks’ “The Learning Tree,” Bill Gunn’s “Ganja & Hess,” or Charles Burnett’s “Killer of Sheep”—released in 1969, 1973, and 1978, respectively—films authored under the imaginative visions of African American men that wholly defy the staples of the Blaxploitation niche. Yet, even in a Post-Spike Lee world, where “Black Panther” and “Moonlight” can coexist in a harmonious conversation alongside their contemporaries, Black films of bygone eras remain linked to traits that do not define an entire community.
Therefore, it is difficult to know how Horace B. Jenkins would have reacted to the current state of cinema as it relates to the preconceptions of African American films. The director’s sole feature “Cane River” bristles with intelligence and gleams with a passion for championing a holistic, non-combative portrait of the Black community in the U.S., with the narrative’s free-flowing, pensive nature drawing comparisons to the literature of Henry David Thoreau by way of James Baldwin.
Following a budding romance between the aspiring poet Peter (Richard Romain) and confident scholar Maria (Tommye Myrick), Jenkins’ film, set deep in the heart of Louisiana, originally debuted in 1982, a year that also marked the passing of the director, resulting in “Cane River” devolving into a well-respected urban legend until being rediscovered in 2013. Upon viewing Jenkins’ artistic treatise on the effects of colorism, class, and generational strife through a retrospective lens, one cannot help but speculate on the other creations that might have formed from the filmmaker’s empathic mind. “Cane River” exudes an affable purity in its romance, a factor admirably blended with a virtuous frustration for the internal dissent between Black people in America.
Amorous montages, which admittedly grow tiresome, and cutesy flirtation cohabitates alongside discussions regarding the pervasive legacy of slavery, the repression of women’s intelligence, and the definition of Black masculinity in relatively peaceful congruence. Ultimately, unity stands as the takeaway that the film aspires to impart to its viewers, especially to people of color; although disparities exist and strife arises, Jenkins argues division, if not averted, will incite the collapse of the progress that minority communities have fought to safeguard for future generations.
While combining social commentary with passionate courtship might dissuade a cynically inclined viewer, “Cane River” succeeds in speaking to both elements—mostly. Although the intellectual discussion remains evergreen, Jenkins’ debut feels dated in the way that most ’80s films do; in short, it is wrought with cliché. Relatedly, the pacing swings between stagnant and jumpy, and the characters of Peter and Maria themselves, while functioning as personified microcosms more than relatable individuals, neglect to develop over the course of the story to a satisfying effect.
Furthermore, “Cane River” overlooks plot tangents that could have elevated Jenkins’ analysis of the African American community to new heights. Specifically, Maria’s relationship with her brother, an element that embodies the conflict of retaining perceived racial authenticity—staying true to one’s roots—and integrating development derived from non-communal sources, never flourishes, much to the degradation of, ostensibly, one of the more progressive arguments existent in “Cane River.”
Nonetheless, as a cultural capsule encompassing relevant debate and pure-hearted style, “Cane River” deserves to be recognized for its artistry and praised for its defiant stance on deriding stereotypes. Akin to Peter’s fictional struggle of regaining stolen land, memorializing Jenkins’ feature, in a way, holds an equal power. By reclaiming the voices and visions of forgotten Black filmmakers, one can only hope that the world will begin to see that, beneath the skin and beyond the external, we are all more alike than we appear. [B]