Saturday, May 9, 2020

Cane River Took Decades to Get Released But It Was Worth The Wait

Cane River has taken quite the journey on its road to being released. Written and directed by Horace B. Jenkins, the film was independently financed and filmed outside of the Hollywood studio system. As 1982 drew to a close, the production hoped to secure distribution that would get Cane River seen by millions. Unfortunately, tragedy struck when Jenkins died oh a heart attack in December 1982 at the age of 42. Afterward, Cane River failed to secure distribution and went unseen. For thirty years, it sat on a shelf until the discovery of a print of Cane River in 2013 sparked an effort to restore the film. Five years of editing and polishing later, Cane River premiered on the film festival circuit in 2018 before finally receiving a theatrical release in February 2020.

Beyond all the background details of its struggles to get released, though, Cane River still offers plenty for viewers to ruminate on. Cane River is a romantic drama following a spark of love developing between Peter Metoyer (Richard Romain) and Maria Mathis (Tommy Myrick). Though they both hail from Louisana, they're starkly different people. For one thing, Peter is football player/poet whose been all over the world while Maria has never left home. For another, they come from drastically different families. Peter belongs to the famous Metoyer family, whose ancestors were slaves that actually owned other slaves.

This means Maria's family, including her determined Mother, don't trust any member of the Metoyer family, especially one that has eyes for Maria. Still, despite their differences, Peter and Maria do begin to fall for one another. The individual reasons for why these two would fall in love is one of the more thoughtfully-rendered parts of Jenkins' screenplay. He takes great care to paint detailed portraits for what makes Maria and Peter click together. For Peter, Maria is the only person he feels comfortable enough around to openly talk about his poetry. Meanwhile, Maria is emboldened by Peter to pursue larger ambitions that will take her far beyond her Mother's house.

Even with these elements uniting them, the prospect of disapproving families looms large over their interactions. However, Cane River subverts expectations by refusing to depict this and other elements of conflict in an over-the-top fashion. The seemingly requisite scene of a big blow-out between Maria's relatives and Peter never comes. Instead, Cane River allows disputes to emerge in more subdued forms like casual conversations between Peter and Maria. Through such dialogue, they're allowed to talk about their ancestors, their individual places in the community of Natchitoches and how Black people have been treated throughout American history.

There's always an underlying sense of friction in the central romance of Cane River. However, that friction tends to come about in a much more thoughtful form that also allows a chance for Peter and Maria to explicitly talk about their individual perspectives. Meanwhile, the primary focus of Jenkins' script and the camera remains not on what could tear the two lead characters apart but the emotions that unite them. Numerous scenes in Cane River are simply dedicated to montages (usually framed in a wide shot) of the two lead characters romping around in a golf cart, swimming together, or just walking through a lavish garden. These tranquil scenes prove to be plenty moving on their own terms, especially given that they're captured through the warm cinematography by Gideon Manasseh.

However, these scenes take on an extra level of power given how well they undermine conventional cinematic language related to the depiction of Black people. Dating to the earliest days of American cinema, Black people have been defined by pain. They were relegated to the roles of maids and slaves whose lives were defined by hardship and their relationship to white protagonists. Cane River, meanwhile, all the way back in 1981, dared to imagine a vision of film where Black people could lead a movie and one that dedicates numerous sequences to two Black people being in love at that! Like fellow independent Black filmmakers of this same era like Charles Burnett and Kathleen Collins, the filmmaking of Horace B. Jenkins' challenges the status quo without even calling attention to its groundbreaking nature. That sort of filmmaking registers just as powerfully in 2020, especially when it comes to a movie like Cane River that has the good sense to end on a freeze-frame of its protagonist happily crying out "Yee-Haw!"

Cane River is now available to stream on The Criterion Channel.

No comments:

Post a Comment