Cane River (1982)

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of its humor & romantic melodrama, Cane River is just as much of an escapist fantasy as it is a political screed & a historical document.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 easily 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 WomanCane 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.

-Brandon Ledet

The Wiz (1978)

While still feeling the high of seeing The Wizard of Oz projected on the big screen earlier that morning, I took the opportunity to catch up with one of its stranger cultural echoes. Return to Oz inspired many childhood nightmares and Wicked sparked plenty a backseat singalong, but the legacy of The Wiz is much more difficult to pinpoint. The most expensive movie musical ever made (at the time of its release), The Wiz was a massive critical & commercial flop. Star power as potent as Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Richard Pryor all working in their 1970s prime did little to save it from pans & lackluster receipts in ’78, but did afford the film a cultural longevity. A Wizard of Oz-based musical with an all-black cast is a fascinating concept with instant cultural appeal, a memory many children of the ’70s remember fondly even if its reputation at the time was dogshit. Many cite The Wiz‘s financial failure as leading directly to white movie producers killing the era’s blacksploitation boom, believing black-led media to no longer be profitable. After all, if a musical spectacle starring former members of The Supremes & The Jackson 5 directed by one of the most well-respected filmmakers of his time can’t make money at the box office, what black-marketed film could? The problem, of course, was not a lack of interest in the market, but a legitimate deficiency in the product being sold. To put it lightly, The Wiz is a total fucking mess.

Besides the typical energy & passion deficiencies that haunt all cynical cashgrabs with ludicrously bloated budgets, the main problem The Wiz struggles with is authenticity. The film’s superstar cast and association with Motown Records (including a Quincy Jones soundtrack), suggest a black culture authenticity at first glance, but its white producers & filmmaking team undercut that perspective significantly. Directed by Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico) and written by Joel Schumacher (Batman & Robin, Flatliners, The Number 23), The Wiz often feels like an embarrassing, borderline offensive approximation of black culture. Sequences involving sweatshop workers & humanoid crows in particular feel dangerously close to a minstrel act (with the crows being no less embarrassing than the ones depicted in Disney’s Dumbo four decades earlier, sadly). Even the film’s Motown-flavored soundtrack feels watered down & whitewashed for a wider (read: whiter) audience. The Wiz also can’t help but feel like an oddly cheap knockoff of the 1939 Wizard of Oz film, because of its rights issues. Based off a musical stage play that shares the same source material with the Technicolor classic, The Wiz was legally allowed to reference the L. Frank Baum books, but not elements of the original film. Dorothy can click her slippers, but they have to be silver, not ruby red. She can journey across the yellow brick road, but she has to “easy on down,” not “follow” it. Everything about The Wiz just feels slightly off in that way. Its basic hook is fertile ground for an amazing Wizard of Oz adaptation (and a lot of people very much enjoyed the recent NBC broadcast staging of the same play), but every odd step in its production amounted to a massive miscalculation. The fact that it could be great with a different creative team and less of a Studio Notes ethos makes the experience of watching it all the more frustrating too. I really wanted to enjoy it.

Diana Ross stars as Dorothy Gale (duh), a twenty-something school teacher who spends nearly her entire life couped up inside her family’s Harlem apartment. Ross plays Dorothy as scared & fragile, with none of Judy Garland’s awe-filled excitability. Her stress dream about traveling to Oz is triggered more by her fear of leaving the safety of her home than anxiety over her dog & the weather, although Toto does venture outside just in time for the two to be swept up in a tornado (snownado? snowclone?) in the Harlem snow. Unlike in the 1939 picture, Oz is an enclosed environment. Dorothy smashes through the ceiling and lands in a giant bowl of grits (*eyeroll*). The story doesn’t deviate much from the source material from there, except in its production design & characterization details. Characters have a tendency to speak exclusively in slang (or Joel Schumacher’s estimation of slang) and the world they populate had a grey, concrete “urban” look instead of the 1939 film’s vibrant Technicolor atmosphere. Michael Jackson plays the scarecrow, protecting a sunflower patch outside NYC housing projects. Comedian Nipsey Russell plays the Tin Man as a theme park automaton attached to a Coney Island rollercoaster. The lion starts as a concrete statue; the Munchkins are animated graffiti; the poppy fields are a corner of street hookers, etc. etc. etc. Only Lena Horne’s presence as an astral version of The Good Witch & Richard Pryor’s befuddled version of The Wizard aren’t marinated in Urban Flavor to “modernize” the material, but the relative blandness and the movie’s interminable 130min runtime raise questions audiences should probably never had to ask, like “Will this ever end?” or “Is Richard Pryor funny?” Anyway, Dorothy & her pals ease on the road, get an eyeful in Emerald City, defeat an evil witch, and then magically will themselves back to Harlem after learning about the wisdom, compassion, and courage they had in themselves all along or whatever.

As The Wiz is an eternal limbo of white men misinterpreting black culture into an overproduced, bafflingly boring mess of a late 70s musical, the best modern audiences can hope to mine from it is novelty as a cultural relic. The music is just as soulless & forgettable as Diana Ross & Richard Pryor’s asleep-at-the-wheel performances; Nipsey Russell’s robotic one-liners about STDs & his ex-wife get lamer by the minute. That essentially just leaves Michael Jackson’s scarecrow to carry the weight of making this exhausting display of oddball decisions feel at all worthwhile. He does okay. The costume designers rob him of his youthful beauty by drowning him fleshy neck & chin prosthetics, but he’s still a consistently magnetic presence with a golden voice. My favorite image in the entire film is a subway-set scene where two sentient trash cans attempt to eat Michael Jackson alive. That pretty much sums up the entire enterprise. I was frequently impressed with the massive scale of The Wiz‘s production design; the disco number set at The Emerald City was especially gorgeous in that respect (before it had time to outlast your patience). Its look is much more drab than the Technicolor dreamscape of its 1939 predecessor, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The dour look of the film echoes its more decidedly tragic tone, at least in the way Ms. Ross chose to play it. The problem is that the story its visual achievements serve is both punishingly boring & embarrassingly miscalculated. I’d love to see what a modern black filmmaker could do with this same material (and it sounds like I should at least catch up with its recent The Wiz Live! revival), but Lumet’s film ultimately amounts to a fascinating misfire at best. As is, it likely shouldn’t even exist.

-Brandon Ledet