“Cane River,” a groundbreaking African-American independent film, was lost for more than three decades. Now it’s found.
The New Orleans Film Festival will screen “Cane River,” a history-laced love story set in Natchitoches Parish, on Monday at the Contemporary Arts Center.
Featuring an all-black cast, made by an all-black crew and financed by New Orleans’ Rhodes family, “Cane River” premiered in New Orleans in May 1982. Richard Pryor, then shooting “The Toy” in Baton Rouge, attended the screening. The famous actor and comedian wore a disguise and sat in the back of theater.
“Cane River” never received the national release that Horace Jenkins, its Emmy-winning writer-director, hoped for. By late 1982, Jenkins and his companion, New Orleans businesswoman Carol Balthazar, were still seeking distribution for the film. After Jenkins’ death at 42 on Dec. 3, 1982, his labor of love fell into obscurity.
For 31 years, two “Cane River” negatives languished in the DuArt Film & Video vault in New York. In 2013, IndieCollect, an organization that rescues, preserves and seeks archival homes for unclaimed independent films, found the prints.
Identifying films in the DuArt vault requires detective work. DuArt’s records only reflect whatever company paid for a film’s processing, said IndieCollect President Sandra Schulberg. Ninety percent of those companies have gone out of business.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Academy Archive accepted “Cane River” sight unseen.
“One of our missions,” said Ed Carter, documentary curator at the Academy Archive, “is to save ‘orphan’ films — those films made outside of the studio system, whose owners are either unknown or cannot afford to care for them.”
Carter located Jenkins’ name on the film’s negative. That discovery led to Schulberg finding Jenkins’ obituary in The New York Times. The obit revealed that he won Emmy awards for producing “Sesame Street,” the PBS legal affairs series “The Advocates” and “30 Minutes,” a program for young people modeled after “60 Minutes.” His documentary, “Sudan Pyramids: A Zandi’s Dream,” won the 1978 Oscar Micheaux Award.
“Little by little,” Schulberg said, “we unraveled the story of ‘Cane River,’ including the fact that it was financed by a prominent New Orleans family.”
Carter located the film’s editor, Debra I. Moore, a longtime television editor in Los Angeles.
“It was such a harrowing, exciting, wonderful and crazy experience,” Moore said of her nine months of work on “Cane River.” “You must remember the times. This was the tail end of blaxploitation movies. That opened the door to young black filmmakers. Our stories were not exploitation. Horace was a thoughtful artist. ‘Cane River’ is a beautiful story because Horace was a beautiful man.”
Associate producer Kathleen Astorga, daughter of executive producers Duplain and Doris Rhodes, said the film’s love story and conflicts of class and color resonated with her mother.
“My mother came from a Creole community, but she married a black man,” Astorga said.
Originally, Sidney Poitier’s daughter, Pamela, was cast as the film’s leading lady. When she dropped out a few weeks into production, Tommye Myrick, a New Orleans actress and director living in New York, stepped in.
Myrick accepted the role of Maria Mathis even though she could neither swim nor ride a horse, two requirements for the part. Her leading man, first-time actor and former LSU Tigers wide receiver Richard Romain, taught his co-star to swim in plenty of time for the script’s swimming scenes.
On the set in Natchitoches, Myrick recalled, “Horace knew exactly what he wanted. He and I never, ever locked horns on anything.”
Moore attended the “Cane River” premiere in New Orleans. After the screening, she recalled, when the applause and excitement had subsided, Richard Pryor put a hand on Jenkins’ shoulder and led him outside.
The next morning Moore joined Jenkins, Pryor and Duplain Rhodes at a breakfast meeting. Pryor arrived in the same disguise he’d worn at the premiere. Once he’d peeled off the disguise, Pryor explained that he and Jim Brown, the football star, had an acquisition deal with Warner Bros. The actor said he loved “Cane River” and wanted to buy it. Neither Pryor nor Jenkins, however, could convince Rhodes to relinquish control of the movie.
“Horace was terribly outdone,” Moore said.
Cut to 2016. Director Jenkins’ son, Sacha, a filmmaker himself, contacted IndieCollect after he read a New York Times story that mentioned the company’s rescue of “Cane River.” At IndieCollect’s office last year, Jenkins and his sister, Dominique, watched their father’s film for the first time during private, individual screenings.
Although Sacha Jenkins had never seen “Cane River,” he knew the movie’s music because he’d grown up listening to the soundtrack album that features New Orleans vocalist Phillip Manuel.
“The music in the film cued memories from my childhood and, obviously, memories of my father,” Jenkins said. “Seeing the film, it was like the manifestation of all these things that I remember my father stood for. He was an important filmmaker who wanted to make films that honored black people and showed the complexities of who we are.”
During her first viewing of “Cane River,” Dominique Jenkins said, “I just cried. It was like my father was standing next to me the entire time with his hand on my shoulder.”
Like her brother, she sees their father in his film. “This is who he is,” she said. “It’s everything that he believes in. His love of African-American history and people, his love of America.”
WHEN: 7:45 p.m. Monday (Oct. 22)
WHERE: Contemporary Arts Center
900 Camp St.