Monday, February 3, 2020

The late Horace B. Jenkins' CANE RIVER -- from 1982 -- receives a theatrical release at last

The gradations in skin color of the Negro race is a subject we almost never find in films these days -- remember Pinky and Imitation of Life? -- now that the phrase "people of color" can so easily include everyone from Blacks to Asians, Hispanics, Mixed Race and very possibly some ultra-suntanned whites.

(Yes, TrustMovies is being politically incorrect, deliberately, and he has grown even more so since the stupid and utterly unnecessary pillorying of Viggo Mortensen, after the actor uttered the "n" word in a completely reasonable, rational and non-pejorative manner -- and which, many of us feel, cost him a much-deserved Oscar, which he lost to another actor who gave an only-OK performance using nice facial prosthetics in a mediocre but hugely popular movie about, of course, a dead celebrity. This year, we note that actor Taron Egerton, giving a much richer and more versatile performance while actually singing the songs of a live celebrity, has not even been Oscar-nominated. But I digress...)

Horace B. Jenkins (shown as a young man, far right, in the photo above), directed only a single, full-length narrative film prior to his untimely death at the age of 42 very soon after his film was completed. His death evidently brought to a halt any distribution plans for that film -- CANE RIVER -- and it has languished in a kind of movie limbo ever since. Now, after nearly 40 years and in a new 4K restoration, the film has found nationwide distribution in limited theatrical release via Oscilloscope Films.

Set in one of those Louisiana "parishes" not all that far from New Orleans, Cane River is a love story that deals with those aforementioned skin color gradations among Blacks, specifically that of a light-skinned Creole man (Richard Romain, above, left), a highly "entitled" former football hero returning to his home town, and a darker-toned young woman (Tommye Myrick, above, right) from the poorer community with whom he quickly falls in love.

Mixed into this love story are the themes of skin-tone superiority, class, Black property ownership, responsibility to family and more. In the hands of a professional filmmaker, all this might come together to form something rich, moving or at least enjoyable. Cane River, however is not a very good film at all. Jenkins' direction is barely rudimentary, and his screenplay/dialog is much worse than that. At time it sounds as though his two lead actors are improvising -- badly -- so wince-producing is some of the dialog here.

Jenkins' themes (and the history associated with these) are often introduced with ham-handed exposition, never more so than in the office of the lawyer handling our leading character's property lawsuit. Ditto our hero's sudden explosion over (and our first and only introduction to) a house that used to sit on the property he owns. As for the "poetry" he writes (above), this sounds more like banal song lyrics and -- what do you know? -- that is exactly the purpose for which the film soon uses it.

Worse, the filmmaker insists upon using, over and over again, these song lyrics/musical interludes to substitute for legitimate screenwriting, during which we might get to know the two characters a bit better. Because of all this, the lead performances come across as unduly stilted. Fortunately, both Mr. Romain and Ms Myrick were very attractive back in the 1980s, so watching them proves not nearly as difficult as listening to their dialog.

Along the way there are a few promising moments: a conversation between the hero's sister and his girlfriend brings the film to sparkling life for a moment or two, and when the lovers decide to attend a service at each other's church, they discover that Baptists and Catholics have something in common among those in attendance. There are some nice street scenes shot in New Orleans, too, and the freeze-frame moment that ends the film is indeed surprising and believably joyous.

I wish I could recommend Cane River more highly, but to do so would be unfair to audiences expecting something approaching a professional film. It is worth seeing as an artifact of black filmmaking in the 1980s (Mr. Jenkins used an entirely Black crew and staff), and it is too bad that the filmmaker did not survive to make more movies, for these surely would have demonstrated increased skill. From Oscilloscope Films and running 105 minutes, the movie opens this Friday, February, 7, at BAM in Brooklyn and at The Broad Theater in New Orleans. To view the half dozen other currently scheduled playdate, cities and theaters, click here and scroll down.

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