#467) Eve’s Bayou (1997)

#467) Eve’s Bayou (1997)

OR “Second Sight Unseen”

Directed & Written by Kasi Lemmons

Class of 2018

The Plot: In a Creole neighborhood in 1960s Louisiana, the seemingly perfect Batiste family falls apart through the eyes of middle child Eve (Jurnee Smollett). One night at a party, Eve witnesses her father, respected doctor Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), having an affair. Older daughter Cisely (Meagan Good) convinces her she didn’t see it, but Eve continues to pick up on her father’s extra-marital affairs throughout the summer. As this revelation becomes more apparent, Eve’s steadfast mother Roz (Lynn Whitfield) takes solace in the psychic counseling of Louis’ sister Mozelle (Debbi Morgan). When Eve learns of a tense interaction between Louis and Cisely, she consults with town fortune teller Elzora (Diahann Carroll) about using voodoo to kill her father. Director Kasi Lemmons highlights the frailty of memory and perception in her feature film debut.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “one of the indie surprises of the 1990s”, and singles out the “standout cast” – especially the “remarkable” Jurnee Smollett.

But Does It Really?: As the rest of this post will reiterate, I was blown away by “Eve’s Bayou”. The film infuses the standard “coming-of-age” drama with a memory play that helps it stand out amongst other indie films of the era. Kasi Lemmons confidently tells her story with a top-notch ensemble led by Jurnee Smollett. In a time when we as a nation are making a conscious effort to make more black voices heard, I cannot recommend “Eve’s Bayou” enough, not just as a great movie by an African-American woman, but a great movie, period.

Everybody Gets One: Kasi Lemmons started acting at a young age, but always knew that she wanted to direct. Her acting career is highlighted by her work as Clarice’s roommate/fellow FBI trainee Ardelia Mapp in “The Silence of the Lambs“. “Eve’s Bayou” was Lemmons’ first screenplay, and her first feature-length film as a director. To prove to skeptic studios that she could direct a movie, Lemmons took a section of the screenplay, and filmed it as the short “Dr. Hugo”.

Wow, That’s Dated: The film’s only real giveaway is the opening logo for long-gone distribution company Trimark Pictures.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Eve’s Bayou” was a critical darling, and went on to become the highest-grossing independent film of 1997. Despite being nominated for (and winning) several key precursor awards,”Eve’s Bayou” received zero Oscar nominations. The film’s biggest wins were at the Independent Spirit Awards: Best First Feature and Best Supporting Female for Debbi Morgan.

Other notes 

  • According to Kasi Lemmons it took “two years and…about a hundred meetings” to get any studio to fund “Eve’s Bayou”. The film finally got a break at Trimark Pictures, then known for such direct-to-video horror films as “Leprechaun”, looking to branch out into art films. Production took so long to commence that Lemmons’ first choice for Eve, Meagan Good, aged out of the role. Good was given the part of older sister Cisely, and Jurnee Smollett was a last minute replacement.
  • There truly isn’t a weak link in the entire ensemble. Rare is the 10-year-old that can hold a movie, but Jurnee Smollett is simply perfect. She successfully balances the innocence and naïveté of being ten with the dramatic weight the part calls for. I also enjoyed the work of Samuel L. Jackson, still riding high off his post-“Pulp Fiction” success, just before he became a blockbuster action star. His Louis is a man who has relied on his charm to overcompensate for his flaws, and that charm is starting to run out for him.
  • But perhaps most perfectly cast is Lynn Whitfield, who is of Creole descent and was raised in Louisiana during this film’s time period: she has known this character literally her entire life. Side note: Is there any woman – then and now – as stunningly beautiful as Lynn Whitfield? No, there is not.
  • Jurnee Smollett’s real-life brother Jake plays Eve’s younger brother Poe. If the Smollett name sounds familiar, you’re thinking of their older brother Jussie, “Empire” actor and recent newsmaker.
  • I feel it’s important to point out the film’s depiction of race. While the entire cast (including extras) were black or African-American, the race of these characters is only mentioned once in passing. If a white director was making this, the racial aspects/racism of the era would pervade the entire film. Kasi Lemmons wisely showcases a diverse black community, while simultaneously focusing on the family and these characters over their race or ethnicity.
  • Once we get to some of the more psychic/supernatural aspects of the movie, this whole plot could have gone off the rails, but everyone downplays it so naturally, it works. Lemmons et al achieve a very difficult balancing act.
  • At one point the kids are stuck in the house for weeks at a time, forbidden to go outside. I’m in Month Three of quarantine right now; this may be the most relatable part of the movie.
  • When Mozelle recalls how her last husband was killed, the film leans more into Tennessee Williams territory, shrewdly staging the events through a mirror without resorting to flashbacks or special effects.
  • It should be no surprise that Vondie Curtis-Hall is cast as the handsome, charming, all-too perfect man who sweeps Mozelle off her feet: he’s Kasi Lemmons’ real-life husband.
  • Speaking of Mozelle, Debbi Morgan is your MVP, and her monologue about whether or not life has a point is a standout.
  • Rounding out this fine ensemble is the late great Diahann Carroll. Probably best remembered now for her early musical career and her later work on the soap opera “Dynasty”, Carroll is wonderfully low-key in a role that could easily become campy. She’s so good in this I won’t even mention her work in “The Star Wars Holiday Special”. …wait.
  • Surprisingly, there’s a section of the end credits devoted to a special effects team and computer animators. Turns out there was an entire character cut from the movie: Uncle Tommy, a deaf-mute family member who lives in the Batiste household, and apparently witnessed one of the film’s key events. The studio investors requested his subplot be removed, and Uncle Tommy was digitally erased from the remaining background shots. While Lemmons was satisfied with the final cut, she did restore Uncle Tommy for her director’s cut in 2016.

Legacy 

  • Critics loved “Eve’s Bayou”, but it was Roger Ebert who put this film on the map by writing a four-star review, and naming it the #1 movie of 1997 on his TV show. As Kasi Lemmons stated years later, “Roger made my career”. She even has the original review framed in her home.
  • Kasi Lemmons only has a few directing/screenwriting credits to her name, the most recent being “Harriet”, the long-gestating Harriet Tubman biopic starring Cynthia Erivo, and the first of Lemmons’ movies to earn an Oscar nomination. When not making films, Lemmons teaches at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

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