Barely released in 1982 and all but unseen for over three decades, Horace B. Jenkins’ “Cane River” was an independent-film anomaly: a race and colorism-themed love story with an all-black cast, written and directed by a black filmmaker, financed by wealthy black backers. Sadly, Jenkins died the same year — long before the film resurfaced in 2013, when its original negative was discovered in the vault of New York City’s DuArt Film & Video. Seven years later, “Cane River” is getting the release it deserved.
The film first premiered in New Orleans in May 1982. Richard Pryor, then shooting “The Toy” in Baton Rouge, attended the screening in disguise. He loved it so much that he offered to use his star power to help get it out. But the backers, the New Orleans’ Rhodes family — owners of a successful funeral business that has specialized in serving Black families since the Civil War — passed on the offer, fearing they would lose control of the film.
More from IndieWire
- 'Cane River': A Forgotten Black Director's Only Film Resurfaces After Being Lost for 40 years
- John Singleton, John Ridley and Others to Mark 1992 L.A. Uprising With Timely TV Documentaries
Instead, “Cane River” never found distribution. Now, the film has been remastered by IndieCollect, and Oscilloscope Laboratories will debut the pristine new print at the Brooklyn Academy of Music February 7, with a national rollout to follow.
Sacha Jenkins — a filmmaker, journalist, and Horace’s son — didn’t learn about the restoration until he happened to search his father’s name online in 2016. He said watching the film for the first time was bittersweet.
“I just wonder how my father would have been recognized for what he did, and how life might have been different for myself, my sister and my mom, if the film was officially released when it was supposed to, with Richard Pryor, or whoever else was interested in releasing it,” said Jenkins, who was 11 when his father died. “I grew up in a single-parent household, in the ‘hood, telling people that my dad was a filmmaker. But no one really believed me, because there was nothing really tangible to show people.”
Sacha Jenkins’ credits include Showtime documentaries “Burn Motherf*cker, Burn!” (2017) and “Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men” (2019). He’s currently working on a Showtime documentary about the life of Rick James. His father was also a documentarian; “Cane River” was his only fictional feature.
“Cane River” is the story of two lovers who each descended from slaves, but of disparate opportunity: Peter (Richard Romain) comes from the lighter-skinned, property-owning Creoles of Cane River, while Maria (Tômmye Myrick) belongs to the darker-skinned families who faced greater discrimination. The movie also deals with how discrimination cost black people untold acres of land during the 20th century.
It was a lot for an independent black filmmaker to take on in 1982; the 1970s Blaxploitation era was in the rearview, and Spike Lee’s “She’s Gotta Have It,” which would launch a new generation of black filmmakers, was still four years away. At the studio level, Michael Schultz (“Which Way Is Up?) was the only black filmmaker working with any regularity.
Horace Jenkins wasn’t a member of the so-called La Rebellion Movement (aka The Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers), but they were his indieworld contemporaries. Charles Burnett’s seminal “Killer of Sheep” came three years prior. And Haile Gerima’s “Ashes and Embers,” was made the same year.
A 1982 New York Times obituary states that Jenkins received an education at the Sorbonne Film Institute in Paris and won Emmys for producing segments of PBS legal affairs series ”The Advocates,” ”Sesame Street” and ”30 Minutes,” a youth version of ”60 Minutes.” He was also part of the team that developed the seminal public-television series ”Black Journal.”
In finally watching the film, Sacha Jenkins said he gained an appreciation for what his father believed in and stood for. “He was very inquisitive, curious, and that fed his storytelling,” he said. “He was driven to tell this story after he went to Natchitoches, where his girlfriend was from, and saw what was happening in terms of land ownership and color, and thought it was a great entry into a story. His desire to marry history with contemporary conversations was something that I couldn’t fully process as a kid. As an adult, looking at his work today, it gives me a totally different understanding of who he was.”
The experience has inspired him to seek out the rest of his father’s works, including an unproduced script that Jenkins described as a spy thriller set on the African continent.
“My dad was a filmmaker who was driven to make films that honored black people, and showed how rich our histories are, and how varied and complex we are, but he was not a businessman, so we’re trying to get it right this time,” Jenkins said. “But if you would’ve told me 25, 30 years ago, or when I was a kid, after he passed away, that I would one day have a hand in bringing ‘Cane River’ to audiences, with people actually appreciating it and talking about it, I never would have believed you.”
Best of IndieWire
- The Best Films of 2019, According to IndieWire's Staff
- 12 of the Best Female-Directed Horror Films of the 2010s, From 'Knives and Skin' to 'The Babadook'
- Why These Are the 8 Best-Cast Films of 2019