There are plenty of examples of long-out-of-print cinematic artifacts getting the 4k digital restoration treatment in recent years, but few restorations can match Cane River’s storied path to 2010s rehabilitation & reassessment. “Unseen for 36 years,” Cane River premiered to a New Orleans audience in 1982 before being considered lost in distribution limbo ever since, largely due to the untimely death of its wirer-director-producer Horace B. Jenkins. While in town filming The Toy, Richard Pryor happened to attend the film’s 80s premiere and offered to help the director land proper national distribution, but Jenkins died before anything came of it. A recovered print of the film surfaced in 2013 and (thanks to financial support from Chaz Ebert & a couple lengthy write-ups from The New York Times promoting its legacy) has been meticulously restored over the last few years as funding has allowed. Even the restored version of the film that marked its second official screening in 36 years was announced to be a work-in-progress, with several glaring sound-mixing issues needing to be addressed before the film is ready for physical media distribution. Still, Cane River’s recent screening at the 29th annual New Orleans Film Festival felt like a righted wrong, a momentous correction to a historic cinematic tragedy.
A large part of Cane River’s historical significance is that it was filmed with a black cast & crew and funded independently by black arts-patrons at a time when that feat would have been incredibly rare (as if it wouldn’t also be rare today). The film also carries hefty cultural cachet in the specificity of its setting: the real-life Cane River region near Natchitoches, Louisiana – one of the country’s first “free communities of color.” Where the film excels is in seeking accessible entertainment value to soften those more academic, cultural accomplishments. Effectively a Romeo & Juliet love story without all that pesky tragedy & bloodshed getting it the way of its humor & romantic melodrama, Cane River is just as much of an escapist fantasy as it is a political screed & a historical document. The small-stakes love story at its center is so playfully sweet that it’s easy to frequently forget that it’s all in service of illustrating a culture clash within a geographically specific black community – one with implications of class & skin-tone discrimination with much larger cultural significance. Cane River takes the Mary Poppins edict “A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down,” to heart, burying the audience under so much sugar that it easy gets away with clearly stating its political messaging in the dialogue without detracting from the romance that sweetens it.
A local football hero returns from big-city college life with the intent to live out the rest of his days in his Cane River community as a farmer & a poet, leaving a professional athlete career he found to be distastefully exploitative behind. He immediately falls for a young woman the small community of busybodies believes to be below his class (and below the cultural prestige of his lighter skin-tone). This class politics divide, socially policed on the basis of centuries-old resentments, simmers loudly in the background but the two young lovers’ conflict is mostly defined by their respective desires to remain in or flee Cane River. One intends to live a quaint, poetic life of rural calm after being disenchanted by the world outside. The other can’t wait to leave the community’s various confines and make something of herself on her own terms as a New Orleans college student, refusing to settle for a life as a local farmer-poet’s housewife. The Romeo & Juliet influence on this dynamic dictates that these conflicts build to a tragic end, but Cane River smartly allows its stakes to remain intimate & contained. The class, feminist, and racial politics that arise in its community-defying romance are just as delicately handled as the consequences of the controversy the two lovers stir. Their story is frustrating & politically complex, but also endearingly sweet and a really smart anchor for the film’s more emotionally detached, academic concerns.
Nothing about Cane River is subtle – neither in its romance nor in its politics. The history of Cane River’s significance as an early free community of color is so clearly stated in the dialogue that the characters recommend specific reading material to the audience on the topic: a book titled The Forgotten People. Its romantic melodrama is relentlessly scored by a soundtrack of original songs by local soul singer Phillip Manuel, whose singing is so pervasive & repetitive that his in-the-flesh appearance behind a microphone at a mid-film house party feels like a surprise celebrity cameo. Our lead is established as a poet by riding around horseback and tenderly writing into his trusty notebook while making eyes at his steed, like a precursor to Mariah Carey’s “Butterfly” video. When a character over-indulges in drinks after work, an accompanying novelty song jokes “Chug-a-lug, have a slug, drink your blues away” before the implications of that alcoholism spoils the mood.
Cane River is, at heart, regional cinema – like a John Waters film, a Matt Farley joint, or a romantic melodrama parallel to The Pit. As a result, the mood is generally light, the talent of the cast varies wildly, and a large part of its inherent fascination is in documenting a very specific community that isn’t often represented onscreen (along with more frequently-seen French Quarter tourism by natural extension). The further we get away from its initial release the more useful & interesting that documentation inevitably becomes to people outside that community. The brilliance of Horace B. Jenkins’s work on the film is that he reinforced it with enough wide-appeal entertainment value & substantive political messaging that its fascination as a regional cinema curio and an act of ethnographic documentation aren’t the limit of its cultural cachet. Like other underseen black cinema artifacts recently given new life in restoration – Daughters of the Dust, Born in Flames, The Watermelon Woman – Cane River is too politically significant & creatively appealing to have been allowed to slip into obscurity for so many decades. Its politics may be a little less radical and more sugar-coated than those other examples, but the level of obscurity it’s been allowed to slip into without official distribution is unmatched in that subset.
Every year I see amazing, potent titles at New Orleans Film Fest that never land proper theatrical distribution, so I doubt Cane River is the only “lost” film of its kind that deserves the restoration treatment; but I’m joyed to see that the one that got through is so endearingly romantic & thoughtfully political.