Eve’s Bayou (1997): Kasi Lemmons Feature Debut

Telluride Film Festival–Announcing the arrival of an extremely talented black female director, Eve’s Bayou, Kasi Lemmons’ feature directorial debut, is an intensely emotional family drama that mixes elements of Southern Gothic with the kinds of characters and tensions that prevail in the plays of Tennessee Williams and other Southern writers. Anchored by a strong cast, including Samuel L. Jackson (who’s also credited as a producer), Lynn Whitfield, and Diahann Carroll, it’s a well-made, if also old-fashioned, multi-generational drama set in the early 1960s. With sensitive handling, Trimark release can travel well beyond the specialized and black markets to encompass broader audiences, likely to be touched by the particular as well as the more universal elements of the story.

Focusing on one prosperous and sophisticated Creole family, writer-director Lemmons adds a significant panel to the growing portraiture of the African-American experience on screen. Set in Louisiana in 1962, the female-dominated Eve’s Bayou sharply deviates from the recent wave of black inner-city films, establishing a more direct link with pictures like Waiting to Exhale, which also concerned black middle-class women.

The Batiste clan is headed by the patriarchal Louis (Jackson), a suave, charming doctor who’s respected and admired by his family and community. Louis is known for his ability “to fix things,” which includes everything but his own family’s problems. Though married to the beautiful, proud and gracious Roz (Whitfield), he is unable to control his weakness for attractive women, who’re often his patients.

In an early sequence, Louis is engaged in an amorous escapade with the very alluring and very married Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson) in a barn, not realizing that he’s being observed by his youngest daughter, Eve (Jurnee Smollett), who happens to be there by accident. Shattered by the experience, little Eve is reassured by her father that he still loves her mom. Nonetheless, Eve can’t forget the traumatic incident and later that night shares her secret with her older sister, Cisely (Meagan Good).

This segment sets the moral tone of the entire yarn, which is seen from the perspective a perceptive girl. Highlighting the loss of innocence by a naive girl, whose illusions of family unity an loyalty are forever changed, these scenes also show how easily children are lied to and manipulated by individuals whom they trust. In this case, it’s not only Louis but also Cisely, who dismisses Eve’s report and fabricates another scenario for her dad’s adulterous behavior. Later information about the complex relationship between Louis and Cisely, which involves intimations of incest, adds resonance to the earlier episodes.

A coming-of-age saga, the film begins with Eve’s voice-over narration, “Memory is a selection of images. Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old.” It is to the director’s credit that, though Louis’s death is known from the start, it’s still shocking to observe the specific circumstances in which he is killed and the effects of his demise on the entire family.

As writer and director, Lemmons appears to be well-versed in the traditions of the South, blending the Gothic and the primal, the bizarre voodoo rituals and the celebrated Southern gentility into a multi-layered narrative that captures in detail the strains operating within one black family. Here is one screen family that is not concerned with oppression, racial discrimination or urban violence. It’s significant that there are no white characters in the story; all the women that Louis fools around with are black. Cast against type, Jackson reveals a suave, romantic and elegant side to his versatile talent that so far has been mostly limited to actioners and pulp fiction fare.

Lemmons is deft at etching riveting female characters and casting them with the right actresses. Greatest praise goes to child-actress Smollett as Eve, a precocious girl who pries open her family’s secrets and then tries to save its members from the bad consequences. Whitfield, still best known for HBO’s The Josephine Baker Story, is compelling as the urbane, proud wife-mother who seems to “have it all” except her hubby’s fidelity. The sexy Debbi Morgan excels as the mysteriously superstitious and intuitively impulsive Mozelle, a young widow whose three husbands never survived her affections.

Carroll, who has been absent from the big screen for a long time, brings color and authority to the role of Elzora, the voodoo visionary whom Eve consults in her struggle to save her family. Vondie Curtis Hall (who’s Lemmons’ husband and helmer of Gridlock) is well cast as Mozelle’s new lover, a man willing to risk the curse that destroyed all the men she had married.

Technical credits are quite polished: the smoothly assured mise-en-scene and authentic visual look (pic was shot on location by the gifted Amy Vincent) seldom indicate that Eve’s Bayou is a first directorial effort.