A scene from the late filmmaker Horace Jenkins' film, 'Cane River' | Courtesy of Ebertfest

Ebertfest 2019 hosted several remarkable movies this past weekend at the Virginia Theater in Champaign: Bound, A Year of the Quiet Sun, and Sideways, just to name a few.

While there were many selections to choose from, I was most intrigued by Cane River and Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise.

Entangled with recurring themes of love, rebellion, classism and colorism, Cane River is a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. Two lovers, Peter Metoyer and Maria Mathis, navigate the complications of being together despite the deep-seated mistrust between their Louisianan  families.

Award-winning filmmaker Horace Jenkins wrote, produced and directed the 1982 film. He passed away at age 42, shortly before its theatrical release. After the footage went unseen for decades, producer Sandra Schulberg came across the negative and worked to restore the film.

At Ebertfest, during a Q&A session with the audience, Jenkins’ son Sacha Jenkins described the connection he felt to his father after working to bring Cane River to the big screen.

“I didn’t go to film school for any of this. How you explain what I’m doing now, and how all this is happening, is beyond me,” the younger Jenkins said. His career started in journalism, where his work with Vibe Magazine and Rolling Stone made him one of the most important voices in hip-hop journalism.

Jenkins is now making his impact on the documentary world. He most recently directed the four-part documentary Wu-Tang: Of Mics and Men, which premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival and is set to air on Showtime in May.

“So I really believe that he [my father] has a heavy hand in what it is that I do,” Jenkins said.

A big theme in Cane River is colorism. The Metoyers were among the first families to be freed from slavery, and went on to eventually become land owners. Their wealth well surpassed other Black folks in the area. Though financial disparities drive a wedge between the Metoyers and the rest of the community, the underlying problem is the differences in skin color.

Maria Mathis’ mother often uses the word “creole” when describing her aversion to Metoyer. Once a term used to identify those born in Louisiana in the 1700s, “creole” takes on a negative connotation in Cane River. Over time, the divide deepens between creoles of color (such as the Metoyers) and other African Americans (such as the Mathises) because of proximity to whiteness, ability to own land and other privileges. This complex issue is alive and well today, ranging from standards of beauty to climbing the ladder in the workplace. The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color is the book that gives the historical background seen in the film.

I was drawn to the ambitious protagonist, Maria Mathis, played by Tommye Myrick. Caught in the middle of this tension, Mathis finds herself falling in love with Peter Metoyer. Further complications arise when Metoyer, played by Richard Romain, asks Mathis to stay in Cane River and be his dutiful wife.

As a soon-to-be college graduate, this conflict hit close to home. Having heard this unfair question, and even ultimatums, I sat on the edge of my seat hoping that Mathis wouldn’t compromise her education.

Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise is another film that made for an enthralling experience. It chronicled the late, legendary poet’s life and many of her achievements. As someone who appreciates her work and learned about her life as a child, I still learned a great deal from the documentary.

Known for her eloquent way of speaking, Angelou wasn’t always a public speaker. She didn’t talk for five years following the murder of the man who raped her. As a young girl, Angelou believed that her speaking out about the sexual assault is what led to her rapist being killed. She thought her words were deadly.

Angelou’s vulnerability is what makes this film so impactful. Her ability to empathize with anyone that she came across triggered my own self-reflection. I often view myself as open-minded and compassionate, but it goes further than caring about causes that you’re passionate about. Angelou extended the same graciousness to any and all causes.  

One of my favorite parts of the documentary is when Angelou describes how she spoke to late rapper Tupac Shakur. She didn’t know who he was on the set of the 1993 romantic movie Poetic Justice, starring singer/actress Janet Jackson. Angelou only knew that Shakur was angry, and so she went to speak words of affirmation to him. In an empowering speech, she told Shakur that he was our future, and that he was loved. A very excited Jackson then came to Angelou’s trailer to let her know who she had just spoken to.

Angelou left a permanent impact on the lives of countless people. It shows through the on-camera interviews with former president Bill Clinton, rapper Common, actress Alfre Woodard and Angelou’s longtime friend, Cicely Tyson.

The film’s director Rita Coburn stressed the importance of keeping autobiographical films alive during an audience talk-back at Ebertfest.

“It’s important because Black people didn’t write the books,” Coburn said. “If you don’t know where you came from, it’s hard to know where you’re going.”