Not long after its 1982 premiere, Horace Jenkins’s film Cane River—a love story set in one of Louisiana’s first “free communities of color”—disappeared following the filmmaker’s untimely death, lost on a shelf in the DuArt film laboratory. More than thirty years later, the work, recently rediscovered and restored, finds its rightful place in the history of African American independent cinema. In advance of Cane River’s July 24–26 Walker screenings, Amirah Ellison—a writer, independent curator, and family engagement assistant in the Walker’s Education department—digs into how the film was rediscovered, what it says about the power of film restoration, and what it means for Black people, including Ellison’s own family, today.
“What is more poetic than planting a seed and watching it grow?”
Early on in the film Cane River, Peter Metoyer (Richard Romain) poses this question to his love interest, Maria Mathis (Tommye Myrick). Peter’s question is meant to flatten the barrier between two things: poetry and farming. Or, by extension, his life in the rural, agrarian, small town of Cane River, Louisiana, and the perceived intellectualism of New York City. But, in the context of the film’s life, this line also foreshadows the story of what would become of the movie Cane River.
Cane River was filmed in 1981, premiered in 1982, and was buried after a series of major setbacks later that year left the film without a distribution deal. Among those setbacks was the untimely death of the film’s creator, Horace B. Jenkins.
Rediscovered in 2013, the film was restored and began reemerging in 2016. It has screened only a few times, including for audiences at the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the New Orleans Film Festival.
Written, produced, and directed by Jenkins, an Emmy Award–winning documentarian, Cane River was Jenkins’s first and only feature-length film. Set in Natchitoches Parish, Louisiana, it is inspired by the hometown of his then-partner and the film’s co-producer, Carol Balthazar. When speaking about his father’s career, Jenkins’s son Sacha, a filmmaker himself, said, “He always told me that he was about telling our stories, and by ‘our’ I mean Black people in America.” He continued, “It wasn’t a documentary, but a lot of the things that he believed in as a documentary filmmaker are evident in Cane River.”
Cane River wears its politics on its sleeve, but instead of bashing you over the head, the film’s crucial political moments are delivered in sly statements said here and there by one character to another or in a subplot including a legal battle over land. It is incredibly earnest. Cane River came at the tail end of the blaxploitation era, which many people thought portrayed crude and narrow depictions of Black life. Sacha Jenkins says his father made Cane River in response to those portrayals, offering a different look at Black life. He wanted to show Black people “as they are in nature, as they are in everyday life.”
But Horace Jenkins was a talented storyteller who understood that the film’s politics had to float underneath its essential premise. Before anything else, Cane River is a love story. As soon as Peter and Maria meet each other, we are introduced to the forces that mean to keep them apart: social stigmas rooted in racism, classism, sexism, and a complex history of slavery in the region. It was a radical conversation to have back then, and it’s still a radical conversation to have today. The story is specific to the context of rural Louisiana in the early ’80s, but its themes are still glaringly relevant. Colorism isn’t only a conversation happening in Black American communities: it’s a near-global conversation that’s forcing us to wrestle with everything from skin bleaching creams to employment to mass incarceration.
Thirty years after the film was created and lost, a miraculous series of coincidences led Sandra Schulberg to find it. Schulberg, the founder and director of IndieCollect, was able, with the help of the Academy Film Archive, to save thousands of film materials left in the vault of the DuArt Laboratory after its petrochemical division closed in 2010.
The batch of film negatives transferred to the Academy Film Archive in 2013 included Cane River. Academy curator Ed Carter said finding Cane River was like finding a needle in a haystack. “Nobody knew what it was. It was just one of those things; I just grabbed it.”
There was a several-year difference between discovering Cane River in the DuArt lab and being able to sit down and watch it. In the lab, most of the documentation about the films were the names of the production companies, not the filmmakers themselves nor the titles of the films. Most of these production companies no longer exist, and the contact information was, not surprisingly, out of date. They identified the film’s name and its editor—Debra Moore—from the credits.
The version that will screen as part of the Walker’s Lost Films & Restorations series is a new 4K digital restoration created by IndieCollect using a brand new 35mm negative. IndieCollect is currently fundraising to complete a restoration from the original 16mm negative, the director’s cut.
The rediscovery of Cane River reveals American culture in a new way—one that only the perspective of history can provide, leaving Schulberg with renewed conviction about the importance of Cane River. “It is always startling to feel you’ve been tapped on the shoulder by a spirit. I have sensed that many times in my life, and I can feel it now.”
Here is where I admit my own personal connection to Cane River, because the feeling that Schulberg describes—of being “tapped on the shoulder by a spirit”—I felt it myself as I watched the film. Peter Metoyer may be a fictional character, but Claude Pierre Metoyer and Maria Therese, Peter’s ancestors in the film, were real people—and my real ancestors. And Carol Balthazar, Jenkins’s long-term partner, co-producer, and inspiration for the film, is my nana’s cousin. Aunt Carol, as we referred to her, was a brilliant and generous presence in our family. Despite my nana’s move from Louisiana to Michigan decades ago, Carol became a mentor to my oldest brother, Isaiah, while he attended law school at Tulane.
Aunt Carol passed just weeks before Isaiah’s graduation; it was an emotional and bittersweet moment. At a small celebration after his ceremony, Isaiah stood up to speak and gave out the obligatory thank yous to various people in the room. And then he spoke about Carol. He talked about how the move from Minnesota to Louisiana was hard, how the heat combined with the workload drove him to question whether he had made the right choice in going back to school, and how it was Carol—her guidance, her friendship, her humor, encouragement, and support—that got him to graduation day. It was one of the few times I’d ever see him cry. Nearly a year later, while working here at the Walker, I came across Cane River on the calendar. It was my Ed Carter moment; by some luck, I locked onto the event and, as I learned more about the film, I saw my family—the Metoyer name, Maria Therese, and Carol Balthazar.
I never knew about Carol’s love and involvement in the arts. But, in retrospect, maybe the signs were there. My dad recorded a small portion of her funeral; she went out the New Orleans way, a procession of jazz musicians paying their respects as she transitioned. My nana seemed less surprised. She was quick to recall Horace and Carol’s love for each other; she wasn’t shocked to learn that they’d created a piece of art modeled after their own romantic stakes, rooted in the Cane River community where both my nana and Carol were born and raised.
The romantic stakes between Peter and Maria are the heart of the film, but the film makes clear that those stakes are higher for Maria, namely because she is a dark-skinned Black woman who comes from a family with very little generational wealth. Between 1982 and today many brilliant Black artists, activists, and academics have been able to name and speak out against the oppressive forces that Black women, like Maria Mathis, have experienced for centuries. At the time Cane River was created, it bore witness to some of those forces. Today, we have new language to understand and articulate them.
One scene in Cane River that calls attention to some of those forces is the scene between Maria and her mother, Mama (Carol Sutton). In the scene, Maria is asserting her authority over her own life—she will love who she wants—while her mother is insisting that she is naive. He cannot love you, Mama says. You are not his kind, she warns. Mama is speaking not just of racism, but colorism, of how light-skinned Black people—in Louisiana, especially—have had a legacy of furthering racial oppression onto darker-skinned Black people. Her objection is out of love, she doesn’t want her daughter mistreated for her dark skin, especially in the context of a romantic bond.
It is not so much what Maria’s mother says to her, but the tone—the anger and desperation in her voice when she says it. The scene, according to Myrick, was not originally in the script. Only after they finished filming, and Horace still felt that something was missing, did they create it. The cameraman had already gone home by that time, so Horace placed the camera on top of a tripod and filmed it himself.
They weren’t given much direction, but Sutton and Myrick knew what to do. Myrick remembers the improvisation, saying, “I was giving her my experiences, and she’s giving me hers.” This scene is a living example of Audre Lorde’s statement in her essay “The Uses of Anger” that “anger is often grief that has been silent for too long.” This scene, more than any other scene, illuminates the grief that Black women experience at the hands of misogynoir. The existence of this scene in Cane River is a testament to Jenkins’s understanding that anger and grief are often one and the same in the lives of Black women. He knew that to tell this story, those emotions—those responses to racism and colorism—had to be recognized.
Although this film has gone unseen for many years, Black people have gone on living under the same circumstances present in Cane River. In that time, people like Lorde, as well as Kimberlé Crenshaw, Moya Bailey, and others, have worked to give us the tools to understand the themes in Cane River. Myrick echoed that sentiment, stating that Cane River will be “even more resonant, and have even more power than it did when it first came out.” In the time between Cane River’s creation and now, Black people have pressed forward, forcing our country to grow. And hopefully, with more common knowledge about racism, colorism, and classism, audiences who see Cane River today will be better prepared to confront the realities it presents.
In my conversation with Tommye Myrick for this piece she revealed she’d been present at Carol’s funeral, and that Richard Romain had been as well. As far as I know, Aunt Carol co-produced one film in 1981 and no other. It was the only time the three of them had ever worked together. In 1981, Horace Jenkins planted a seed, Carol Balthazar put her hands in the dirt to help him plant it. And, under the ground, it grew—into friendships that lasted well beyond 1981; into a resonant love story (both on the screen and behind the camera); into a time capsule helping us explore racism, colorism, and sexism; into a shining example of why film restoration matters; into a familial artifact making me feel one step closer to the people I came from.