Journey Back to My Father

Filmmaker Sacha Jenkins on the long-lost, newly restored Cane River, which his father Horace completed just months before his death in 1982.

It was a rough six months for 10-going-on-11-year-old me. My grandfather, Horace Byrd Jenkins II, died of a heart attack. He was 71 years old. Horace II was a cool, mellow cat. He liked to watch the news in the kitchen, the little black-and-white Hitachi television flickering as he sipped Cokes and munched down his unbeatable grilled-cheese sandwiches. I’d be right there with him, chatting, chewing and chilling like a vaudevillian. It was one of the best parts of my summertime visits to Philadelphia. Six months later, some weeks before Christmas, I was back in Philly, only this time I was there for my father Horace III’s funeral. His heart too was overwhelmed by an attack launched against it. He was 42 years old.

I remember visiting my Philly homeboy Joey Lynch the day before the funeral. He lived across the street from my grandparents. The community they populated consisted of new townhouses that hugged up against tree-lined cul-de-sacs; built brand new in the late 1970s, the development represented the hope and sheen everyone anticipated would embody the 1980s. Solidly middle class with all of the bells and whistles that comes with that way of life. Shit, there was a wildlife preserve up the way, replete with what I believed to be quicksand and actual frogs! Plus sports heroes like the Eagles’ Wilbert Montgomery and the Sixers’ Mo Cheeks lived on the block. It was heaven.

Sacha Jenkins, aged 5 months, with his father, Horace Jenkins.

At Joey’s house, however, the day before my dad’s funeral, I was in hell, trying to get back to heaven via playing his Intellivision video game system. I felt numb. The games didn’t mean jack, but I needed something to occupy my mind. I remember Joey’s room had a shag rug. At some point, he must have spilled soda on a section of it (wasn’t me!), because I remember running my fingers through portions of it and it felt like dried up Jheri curl juice on an afro.

Funeral time came. I went down determined not to cry because I was now the “man of the house.” Mind you, the divorce papers had come through a week before my dad died so … it was a tough river my mom would have to row up solo. But still, there was hope: my dad was a filmmaker! He had just completed an incredible film called Cane River (a movie I didn’t actually see until nearly 40 years after his death). Cane River was his first narrative film. He was largely an accomplished television producer and documentary filmmaker (dude was decorated; he’d won Emmys and more).

Horace Jenkins in Saudi Arabia, c. 1967.

Cane River was a real step up and step out. It was financed by the Rhodes family — one of the wealthiest black families in New Orleans. They’d made their bones by giving black folks dignified burials since Reconstruction. I used to be a music journalist, and whenever I’d encounter a Big Easy rap legend like Master P or Birdman or Juvenile, I’d ask, “Ay, yo, you know the Rhodes people?” The answer would always be an emphatic, “Hell, yeah! They done buried my entire family and all my homeboys.” The Rhodes family is no doubt black royalty down there, and with the dynasty they had built, based on the way America moves (you know, if you’ve got money you could possibly have a seat at the table … maybe a far off table if you’re black, but at the table nonetheless), they are royalty in those parts.

So anyway, my father’s partner (I mentioned earlier the divorce thing) was Carol Balthazar. She was a native of the historic Cane River area. Carol hipped my father to the rich history there, a story ripe with tales of plantation-owning Frenchmen (Creoles) married to women of African descent (“Creoles”) and the slaves they owned. My father was fluent in French, and he knew a thing or two about French Colonialism by way of my mother’s native land, Haiti. After checking it out, he quickly realized that Cane River itself was the perfect backdrop for an on-screen tale about forbidden love à la Romeo and Juliet – colorism, feminism, black land ownership, black spirituality, black masculinity, poetry, broken football dreams and education – all fortified by a kickass original soundtrack that sometimes narrates the action. Damn, Horace, damn.

The word was that Richard Pryor, while in the New Orleans vicinity shooting The Toy with Jackie Gleason, went to a screening of Cane River (it played a few times down there). Pryor loved it. Wanted to help broker a deal with Warner Bros. Things were looking up. But Duplain Rhodes, the patriarch of the Rhodes dynasty (word to Blake Carrington), was supposedly not into said plan. The word was that he feared that he would lose control over the film he’d financed. Again, this man was a king in his dominion. Nobody can say that he didn’t get things done. He had a powerful track record. Just not in film …

Richard Romain in Cane River.

There was a meeting after the funeral that I couldn’t attend because I was too young. It was about grown-up affairs: my father’s estate (what estate?!) and what would become of the film. My mother’s brother Maurice — a highly successful businessman in his own right (he was in refrigeration, and every bag of ice on the island of St. Croix was his) — went to the meeting with my mother to hear what the people had to say. Remember, them divorce papers were fresher than a bumblebee’s butt in a daisy. Still, the word was, “Cane River is going to be a success. We’re going to see to it,” Duplain reportedly said. “And don’t worry, the kids’ education will be taken care of.”

Sometimes, it’s the thought that counts.

Melvin Van Peebles read my father’s eulogy. I didn’t understand who he was at the time, but he and my dad were friends, contemporaries who I believe met in Paris; they belonged to a black expat community of artists who’d grown tired of that incubus Jim Crow. Horace III was up for the draft, but supposedly said the kind of thing to the recruiters that would compel them to say, “We don’t want your kind here.” Whatever it takes to avoid that bullshit war (although we have many family members who served in ’Nam and every other conflict that young America has touched). Pops dipped to France in his late teens without a plan. How cool is that?

I didn’t cry at Horace III’s funeral. It was my way of pretending to be tough. Some people found it odd; some people, I would learn years later, were upset by it. I was being the man of the house. Besides, I’d spilled a lot of tears at Horace II’s funeral. I was the last man standing. I had to represent for the macho, macho men somehow.

There were no checks from New Orleans delivered to the various institutions of higher learning I would attend. Same for my sister. It is what it is. Cane River was never released. I grew up in Queens telling kids that my dad was a television producer and a filmmaker. Dude was a phantom, though, and nobody believed me. I remember a kid named Darryl Manigault saying some mean shit to me (kids are mean as fuck). I was just back from the funeral. He asked me in the lunchroom how my father passed. I told him, heart attack. He laughed hysterically and said, “Nah, that motherfucker died from the AIDS!” as if AIDS or heart attacks or any kind of daddy death was funny.

Ah, whatever. I ain’t mad anymore, Darryl. May you rest in peace.

Richard Romain and Tommye Myrick in Cane River.

Nobody was up late at night about not getting that college money. And I didn’t talk to anyone from the Rhodes family until I had rediscovered my father’s film via Google some four years ago. Was up one night. Couldn’t sleep. Something told me to punch in Pop’s name. Of course, there are a billion entries associated with the pro basketball player Horace Jenkins. But combing through them all, I found a New York Times article from two years before about an organization called Indie Collect, whose mission is to give new life to orphaned films. It’s a beautiful mission. The article mentioned Cane River, how it was being restored, and what little was known about my dad. It opined that the stress of finishing Cane River and trying to get distribution for the film had a hand in his tragic death.

I reached out to Indie Collect soon after. Told them that I was Horace’s son and that, hell yeah, I’m a filmmaker too. This wrinkle in the story would lead to more press and more interest and I can’t thank Indie Collect and the Academy enough for all of the work, fundraising and faith that went into bringing Cane River to the people in 2020. Meanwhile, we’ve created a non-profit organization — The HBJ Legacy Foundation — to help restore and look after the entirety of Horace III’s work. His acclaimed docs about the pyramids of Sudan and the first modern-day pan-African conference, which was held in Algeria, aren’t currently available to the masses, but hopefully that will change.

I watched Cane River for the first time at Indie Collect. I’m still collecting my thoughts around how it felt to watch it finally. I don’t think I’ve properly processed it. Everything is still raw. All I know is that I somehow too became a filmmaker. I didn’t have much of a network or the social capital to break into the biz. I wasn’t in touch with anyone who knew my dad or was in a position to give me a shot. I went to New York City public schools where guys like me and my fellow classmate Nasir “Nas” Jones were encouraged by our guidance counselors to go to vocational school after high school. Not that there is anything wrong with vocational school. But what if Nas had gone to vocational school? Maybe the world wouldn’t have Illmatic. Artistic pursuits weren’t considered practical, or even an important part of general development.

The HBJ Legacy Foundation has since inked a distribution deal with Oscilloscope Laboratories, which was founded by a man I called a friend when he was here, Adam Yauch. Adam passed away a few years ago, but I firmly believe that he and my dad have been having heavy conversations about cinema, bebop and the chaos that is our beloved New York City (Pops lived on 100th Street, just a few short blocks away from the place on the very same street where Adam and the other two Beastie Boys played their first gig). Cane River is opening in cities across the country and soon enough around the world. Brooklyn Academy of Music just hosted consecutive sold-out Cane River screenings and the opening in New Orleans was equally as sweet.

Sacha Jenkins today.

Press has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s great to see that nearly 40 years later, people get what my father was trying to say. And what’s incredible about the film is, its themes couldn’t be more timely. Horace III made a classic, and he was excited about making more classics. He made a film that showcased the diversity of black thought and feeling; a film where black love is tender love. This at a time when we were coming out of the Blaxploitation era of filmmaking. Hollywood wasn’t putting up bread for films where the black male lead rode horses and wrote poetry. Hollywood wanted movies that had strong black male leads who might have to “slap a bitch” from time to time to “keep her in line.” And sure, black audiences wanted that too, but they weren’t afforded much else. Horace went outside of the studio system and found rich black people who also craved diversity. Black people funding a black film is an important piece of the Cane River puzzle, so thank you, Duplain, and every single living Rhodes person on Earth.

One of the last conversations I had with Horace was about hip-hop culture. He was fascinated by it. I hadn’t told him before, but I was a proud graffiti writer (we called ourselves writers, not artists back then). He asked me all about it. I told him how kids in the neighborhood would go on these missions and sneak into storage yards to paint subway cars. He then told me that he’d met a cat named Afrika Bambaataa, leader of the Almighty Zulu Nation. He said that Bam told him all about the origins of hip hop. Pops was like, “Man, hip hop is something else. I want to make a movie called Zulu Funk, about hip hop. And the DJs will battle each other on rooftops and breakdancers will battle on rooftops!” This vision spoke to how epic he thought the story was, the city itself being the bleachers from which the action could be spied. I know Zulu Funk would have been the best hip-hop movie ever.

Dubbed the “hero hip-hop needed,” veteran music journalist, hip-hop curator, Queens-native, filmmaker, and musician Sacha Jenkins has narrated hip-hop poetics for three decades. At age 20, he co-founded Beat Down, the first ever hip-hop newspaper, and went on to spend several years at Vibe magazine, where he served as both Staff Writer and Music Editor. His first feature-length documentary, Fresh Dressed (which tells the tale of hip-hop fashion), premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Jenkins would go on to direct Burn Motherfucker, Burn! (2017) and Word Is Bond (2018), both of which premiered on Showtime. Jenkins served as Executive Producer on the Netflix hip-hop series Rapture (2018), and his latest project Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men, a four-part doc series which he directed by Jenkins, premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival, 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, and aired on Showtime in 2019. Jenkins is also a musician, whose latest band, The 1865, has been heralded by legendary guitarist and Living Colour founder Vernon Reid as “the only band that matters. Right now.”