Offering a potent alternative to the stereotypical content in blaxploitation films, a handful of serious dramas with primarily African-American casts were released in the ’70s, including Black Girl (1972), Claudine (1974), and this adaptation of a Tony-winning play by Joseph A. Walker. Originally presented in New York by the progressive Negro Ensemble Company, The River Niger is intense and political but loaded with so many hot-button signifiers that, seen today, it seems a bit more like a highlight reel of the Black Power movement than a proper drama. Walker crams in Afrocentrism, Black Panther-style militarized activism, the resentment felt by black Vietnam veterans, the ravages of alcoholism among urban African-Americans, and myriad other incendiary topics. Thus, even though the story pulls these threads together, more or less, by focusing on the troubles that plague a single black family, The River Niger feels episodic and pretentious, as if Walker felt compelled to address every single subject that was important to African-Americans during the early ’70s.
In the broadest stokes, the movie depicts what happens the week that Vietnam vet Jeff Williams (Glynn Turman) comes home from the war to his family in Los Angeles. Jeff’s father, Jonny (James Earl Jones), is a drunk who dabbles in writing poetry; Jeff’s mother, Mattie (Cicely Tyson), is a strong matriarch trying to prevent her loved ones from learning she has cancer; and Jeff’s friend, Big Moe Hayes (Roger E. Mosley), is a militant caught up in an ongoing hassle with the LAPD. Suffice to say, tensions are as plentiful as plotlines. Combined with narrative-flow problems in the screen version (also written by Walker), this kitchen-sink approach to dramaturgy makes The River Niger a tough film to slog through. Worst among the narrative-flow problems is Walker’s inability to command pacing and tone; the movie jumps abruptly from intense scenes to light ones, and Walker misses myriad opportunities to group similar scenes together and/or use cross-cutting to create dramatic counterpoint. Director Krishna Shah seems equally adrift, occasionally using interesting devices—flash cuts of African masks, a striking camera angle looking over the barrel of a gun—without ever locking into a consistent style.
Even the acting, by a cast of normally reliable performers, is inconsistent. Jones has many beautiful moments, especially when reciting poetry, but his belligerent-drunk bits get tiresome. Tyson, perpetually and rightly cast as personifications of principle, is formidable but humorless. Turman, at his best when loosest, is tight in the extreme, delivering rigid body language and stilted line deliveries. Even the always-interesting Louis Gossett Jr. is merely okay, playing the family’s doctor with a campy Jamaican accent. Holding the film together, to some degree, is a funk/R&B score by one of the quintessential ’70s bands, War, though none of their melodies connect as strongly as their loping grooves.
The River Niger: FUNKY