EVE’S BAYOU (1997)

  • Director: Kasi Lemmons
  • Writer: Kasi Lemmons
  • Starring: Jurnee Smollett, Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Meagan Good, and Diahann Carroll
  • Accolades: Slate Black Film Canon, 2019 BBC Top 100 Films Directed by Women (#68), 1 Independent Spirit Award – Best First Feature
  • Where to Watch: Buy or Rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

“The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old.” Thus begins Eve’s Bayou. It’s a dramatic opening, but I never got as into Eve’s Bayou as I wanted to. It’s very well made, don’t get me wrong, very assured, despite being the first film directed by former actress Kasi Lemmons. And it has something to say about the nature of truth, and of family life. Maybe it’s that I have an immunity to a certain kind of southern-fried vaguely magical realism. I don’t feel any extra charmed because everybody in your movie has a very Southern accent, the trees are dripping vines, and some of the characters occasionally break into Creole. Sorry if that’s harsh. I think maybe a bigger problem was I made it a lot of the way into this movie and wasn’t really sure what it was or why I was watching it.

In a strange way, maybe that’s progress? Eve’s Bayou is the very rare American movie with no White people whatsoever. It has an entirely Black cast, and is about a Black family where the Dad (Samuel L. Jackson) is a doctor, that lives in a big house on a bunch of land in Louisiana. There’s nothing in particular about the story that requires it to be about people from a particular race. Which in some ways is kind of the point. Not all movies made about Black people have to be about inner-city violence, or oppression, injustice, or racism. Sometimes their problems are just the same problems everyone else has.

The story of Eve’s Bayou is told through the eyes of 10-year-old Eve, the middle child of the Batiste family. She is played by young Jurnee Smollett, in one of the great kid actor performances I’ve seen. She feels like a real person, not an overly precocious moppet. Unlike many child actors, Smollett has since transitioned to a successful career in adult roles, most recently as the female lead in Lovecraft Country. The children are all jealous of the affections of their father, the beloved doctor of the local community. Everyone seems to love him. But early in the movie, Eve accidentally catches him cheating on their mom, and it seems like he might have even darker secrets. Or does he?

Also in the house are Eve’s stately mother (Lynn Whitfield) and her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), who has some sort of voodoo psychic powers, we are told. All of Mozelle’s husbands die, though she sometimes sees them in mirrors. There’s another psychic (Diahann Carroll), more scary, who lives in a house on stilts in a swamp. She says Mozelle is cursed and knows how to make someone die if you need her to. She tells Eve’s mother that a kid will get hit by a bus, and she makes her children stay inside for weeks. But then another kid gets hit by a bus, and she can’t help but celebrate.

Kasi Lemmons began her career as an actress, but eventually got tired of only being offered the role of the best friend of a white female protagonist, a role she played in The Silence of the Lambs and Candyman, among many other movies. She came to the conclusion that no one was making the kinds of movie she wanted to be in, so she had to make them herself. She wrote the script for Eve’s Bayou and spent years trying to get it made. No one was willing to finance a drama with an all-Black cast from a first time director who happened to be both a Black woman and, at the time, pregnant, and she wouldn’t let anyone else direct it. Eventually Samuel L. Jackson, who couldn’t get anyone else to give him roles that didn’t involve guns or copious uses of the word “motherfucker,” signed on as a producer on the condition he could play the dad, and the movie got made. It turned out to be, by the small size of its budget, actually a pretty major hit, and Lemmons has continued her directing career since. Her most recent movie was last year’s Harriet, a biography of Harriet Tubman for which Cynthia Erivo received an Oscar nomination. 

The great credit I’ll give to Eve’s Bayou is that it’s exactly the kind of movie that almost every time dips into melodrama, but it fully resists the temptation. Its characters feel more real than that. At the time of the movie’s release, the trendy comparison was to a Tennessee Williams play. But Williams doesn’t resist melodrama, he steers into it. There is no more awards-bait-y scene than the final stretch of A Streetcar Named Desire. There is nothing comparable in Eve’s Bayou. Rather, it is a fairly quiet story about Eve becoming disillusioned about her father, where she learns he’s not this paragon she’s always made him out to be.

I praise that restraint, but it also may be why Eve’s Bayou left me floundering a bit. I tend to love movies that give me a window into another time, place, or culture. Other than the occasional snatches of Creole, there is little in this movie that does that. I don’t think it’s set in the present-day (the buses look older, for one thing), but I couldn’t tell you what time it’s actually set in. The story doesn’t feel like it gives a particular window into another, different culture. It is mostly interested in these very specific people with their very specific lives. Which sometimes works for me, but not always. Eve’s Bayou is an attempt at a universal story told through solely a Black perspective. Which we probably do need more of going forward.

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