Never released before its maker’s death and long thought lost, Horace B. Jenkins’s Cane River is a fascinating curio. Set in the rural Natchitoches Parish of Louisiana, the film begins with Peter Metoyer (Richard Romain) returning to his hometown from New York. Received at the local bus station by a throng of townsfolk who greet him like the fabled prodigal son, Peter, revealed to be a pro football player who gave up an offer with the Jets to move back home, wishes to live the simple life working his family’s farm and writing in his spare time. As he says to an incredulous child who cannot believe that Peter would give up such a lucrative career, “The closest I’ll get to pros is the prose I put down on paper.”

Jenkins films Peter’s resettlement with such idyllic bliss, though, that one cannot necessarily blame him for rejecting millions of dollars for this lifestyle. Pillow shots of sunrise bathing bayous in rich glows, mists curling off the water in the first rays of morning, accompany other images of Peter riding around the countryside on horseback and scribbling poems into a planner that he no longer needs to keep track of appointments. Effectively retiring when he’s barely gotten out of college, Peter basks in a comfort that one wonders how he can afford having turned down his job offer.

Some clarification comes when Peter decides to check out a local attraction, the Melrose Plantation. Initially shown around the former slave plantation by a knowledgeable but clueless white guide (she takes him to slave quarters, only to gush about the weaving loom inside), Peter elects to roam around by himself until he comes across another guide, Maria Mathis (Tommye Myrick), a young black woman quietly reading to herself. Clearly interested, Peter chats her up, ultimately revealing that his last name is Metoyer, descended from the Creole master and his freedwoman wife who actually owned the plantation.

Peter’s heritage becomes a bone of contention for Maria’s mother (Carol Sutton), who notes that their own family are the descendants of the Metoyers’ slaves. In an instant, the breezy tenor of Peter’s countryside rides and his gentle courtship of Maria is upended by the complex intersections of identity and history that crisscross Southern black life like scar tissue. The lingering resentments directed toward a black family complicit in slavery are made plainer by the contrast between Peter’s light skin and Maria’s much darker complexion. Religious divisions (Peter a Catholic, Maria a Baptist) and class divisions are also present; in one scene, Peter learns that a relative sold off a portion of the Metoyer land and in a rage asks how Maria would react to learn she’s lost $150,000 in property, to which Maria can only chuckle at the thought of her family ever having so much money.

Dialogue in Cane River can be direct to the point of stiffness, with characters often exchanging conversations as stilted debates on questions of the relevance of historical sins on present relationships that mix the political with the philosophical. In that sense, they recall the copious debates of young intellectuals in the work of Éric Rohmer, whose simple comedies bear a striking resemblance to Jenkins’ approach here. As in Rohmer’s work, the film belies the often awkward, on-the-nose dialogue with an interest in passive, reflective shots of surroundings that gently tease out deeper themes. The contrast between Maria’s home, with its cheap wood paneling on the walls, and Peter’s family abode, with its furniture of rich oak and mahogany, speaks to the legacy of wealth and its absence and how both money and its lack perpetuate across generations. Likewise, Peter’s ruggedness is undercut by the convertible he drives when not pretending to be roughing it in a rundown family truck.

The casual, subtly illustrated disparity between the characters’ respective economic backgrounds is further underscored by their respective attitudes toward life: Peter, having already gone to college in New York and decided to simply kick back on the significant inherited wealth left to him, cannot fully understand why Maria, only now having saved up enough money after graduating high school five years ago to go to school and leave the suffocating presence of her domineering mother, does not simply want to stay in town with him. Peter even has a foil in Maria’s brother (Ilunga Adell), himself a pro footballer who washed out instead of voluntarily giving up his career. Where Peter luxuriates in early retirement, Maria’s brother wastes away in his childhood bedroom, all the athlete posters that once inspired him now looking down in judgment on a man who has nothing left but to lift weights to distract him from his shame.

For all of the occasional clumsiness of the dialogue, so much of the film’s complex, irreconcilable differences are explored visually and through subtler cues of body language and tones between Peter and Maria. Romain and Myrick share a natural chemistry that overcomes the maladroit phrasing of some of their lines. The actors communicate the instant and strong attraction that binds the characters, as well as the ways in which they clash even on matters as minor as Peter’s propensity for swearing and its effect on the more polite Maria. Cane River covers a surprising amount of terrain for a film with such a loose narrative momentum, addressing how seemingly minor differences can blossom into schisms (colorism, Christian sectarianism). The closest thing the film makes to a statement comes in a scene where Peter and Maria attend each other’s churches, marveling at the striking differences in Catholic ritual and Baptist passion but noting the shared experience of an old lady falling asleep in each service. Such patient observation defines Cane River, allowing the viewer to gently take in its rich microcosm of the fractured nature of American, and especially African-American, identity.

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