A look back at Kasi Lemmons’ wistful, eerie, criminally underrated directorial debut.
(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. In honor of Black Women’s History Month, we’re taking the opportunity to put a spotlight on black women behind the camera – directors who broke through systemic barriers to bring their singular perspective to some of cinema’s most intriguing works.)
Though it’s been proven that human memory is faulty and unreliable, we cling to our own personal recollections with a fierce and iron grip. The idea that we might be remembering something wrong is disturbing to the point of offensive – after all, if we can’t trust our own minds, then what’s left?
Kasi Lemmons’ 1997 feature debut Eve’s Bayou could have easily been a stock melodrama about an upper-class family torn apart by secrets and lies, but its eerie Southern Gothic undertones and opaque “but maybe it happened this way” narrative elevated it to one of the most underrated movies of the 90s. Roger Ebert’s pick for best film of the year, it was nevertheless completely overlooked at Oscars season, and, when it came to the decade overall, mostly ignored in favor of the more bombastic work of white male counterparts Quentin Tarantino and James Cameron. Moving and unsettling, it explores the fallibility of parents, the casual cruelty between siblings, and the favor our minds do us when remembering things differently than the way they really happened.
Set in the early 1960s, it takes place in a small Louisiana town – the Eve’s Bayou of the title – where the air seems to shimmer and the sky always looks a second away from cracking open in a summer thunderstorm. The Batiste Family, ancestors of the woman the town was named for, live in plush comfort, thanks mostly to patriarch Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) also being the town doctor. Louis holds a powerful sway over the other women in town, who are so bold they hang around his medical office and proposition him in front of his children. Driven by his desire to “be a hero,” he rarely turns down an opportunity to step out on his wife, Roz (Lynn Whitfield), the perfect housewife who almost certainly knows what’s going on, but pretends as if she doesn’t.
It’s not until their preteen daughter, also named Eve (Jurnee Smollett), catches Louis having sex with a family friend that the image of everything being fine starts to get a little shaky. Though she’s so stunned by what she sees that she almost has a panic attack, Eve’s older sister, Cisely (Meagan Good), gently convinces her that she was mistaken about what she saw. That small act of kindness is as much to comfort Eve as it is to protect Cisely’s feelings for her father, whom she adores at a troubling level.
Nevertheless, the incident seems to trigger a change in mood for the entire household, as if the family has been sleepwalking, and a loud, cosmic fingersnap jarred them awake. Louis, bafflingly unruffled at his daughter discovering him with another woman, becomes bolder about his indiscretions. Roz, after years of looking the other way, finally, angrily confronts Louis about his behavior, and becomes obsessed with protecting her children after a vague warning from a fortuneteller. Cisely, normally a Shakespeare quoting goody two-shoes, begins to withdraw from the family, openly defying Roz and violently attacking Eve, before eventually being sent away to a relative’s home.
We know that merely wishing someone dead doesn’t make it so, but our superstitious brains and secret hearts believe it to be true. It’s a strange sort of comfort when living in a world in which terrible things happen for no reason at all.
Her little world of parties and idyllic summers on the bayou crumbling seemingly within just a few weeks, Eve spends time with her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), a “psychic counselor” who helps her clients solve problems with missing children and wayward spouses. Mozelle is haunted by the deaths of her three husbands, but, even after she’s told by the same fortuneteller that warned Roz about her children that any man she marries will meet a violent end, she takes another chance with a new client (Vondie Curtis-Hall, Lemmons’ real-life husband).
The way Mozelle sees it, life is about love and the attendant loss it brings. “Life is filled with goodbyes, Eve, a million goodbyes, and it hurts every time,” she says, a heavy thing to lay on a kid, even though it’s true. “Sometimes, I feel like I’ve lost so much, I have to find new things to lose. All I know is, there must be a divine point to it all, and it’s just over my head.”
Other girls Eve’s age might withdraw into books or fantasy worlds, unwilling to face very adult matters, but she watches everything with a wary, often angry and judgmental eye. When she learns the horrifying explanation behind Cisely’s abrupt personality change, she reacts with breathtaking rage, a rage that results in death – or so she convinces herself. We know that merely wishing someone dead doesn’t make it so, but our superstitious brains and secret hearts believe it to be true. It’s a strange sort of comfort when living in a world in which terrible things happen for no reason at all.
Kasi Lemmons, probably best known for helping Jodie Foster figure out that Buffalo Bill “covets what he sees every day” in Silence of the Lambs, made the rare (at the time at least) move of writing and directing a drama about black characters in which they’re not portrayed as victims. Not a single white face appears in Eve’s Bayou, and the Batistes seem to live a life largely untouched by racism. What troubles them is universal – the weakness of men, and a pathological need to keep up appearances, even if it’s benefiting no one but yourself.
Despite Mozelle and Eve’s gifts of second sight (though whether they’re really “gifts” is debatable), the only mystical forces at work in Eve’s Bayou are bad timing and worse luck. If Eve hadn’t discovered her father up to no good with another man’s wife, an event that could have been avoided at least a half-dozen different ways (and that’s not even counting Louis just keeping it in his pants), they could have kept up the charade of being a normal, happy family a little longer. It’s an unfortunate burden that Eve shouldn’t have to carry, but she does, long into adulthood.
How our minds choose to process a traumatic event is sometimes a blessing, only allowing us to recall bits and pieces of it, enough that we get through our everyday lives. Sometimes they play a cruel trick on us and move the pieces around, laying blame where blame doesn’t exist, and guilt feels like the air before a summer rainstorm.