Friday, July 9, 2021

Eve's Bayou


Jurnee Smollett

Lynn Whitfield

Debbi Morgan

Debbi Morgan and Samuel L. Jackson

Writer/director Kasi Lemmons

EVE’S BAYOU                     A                                                                                                    USA  (109 mi)  1997  d: Kasi Lemmons

A poignant coming-of-age mood piece, this film has the feel of a literary adaptation, beginning as a series of short stories written by this first-time director, set among well-off black Creole families in Louisiana in 1962, descendants of Jean Baptiste, a free black man from slavery days.  This film is a search for the hidden truths among the Creole folklore, music, French influence, and voodoo spirit, led by Samuel L. Jackson who plays a highly respected country doctor who is also a notorious womanizing father, Louis Batiste, the reserved, long-suffering, “perfect” beautiful mother, Lynn Whitfield as Roz Batiste, and three children, the middle child named Eve Baptiste, played by Jurnee Smollett, an intuitive, not always understanding ten-year old narrator who thinks she may have killed her father because she wished it so, because she hated him after her older sister told her of his incestuous advances.  The best thing in the film, however, is daytime soap opera star Debbi Morgan (the first black actress to win a Daytime Emmy), the wise, straight-talking aunt, Mozelle Batiste Delacroix, in what has to be one of the strongest and uniquely compelling black performances ever, a woman who can see other people’s future by laying her hands on theirs, who has lost three husbands but decides to try for a fourth in an attempt to overcome her belief that she is cursed.  This film takes us into the realm of Tennessee Williams and a family’s deep, hidden secrets, filled with dreams and poetry as seen through the vulnerable eyes of a child, showing us how deceptive memory can be, a visually powerful, hauntingly beautiful film, where the director offers her own comments about the control needed on the set in order to realize the extreme degree of stylization, Kasi Lemmons on EVE'S BAYOU YouTube (1:25).  Speaking a mix of Creole French and English, Eve reveals a startling revelation in the opening narration that immediately sends our collective heads spinning, “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others imprinted indelibly on the brain.  The summer I killed my father I was 10 years old.  My brother Poe was 9, and my sister Cisely had just turned 14.”  The beauty of this film is in its powerful storytelling, having the childlike feel of a Disney film, with no discussion on matters of race, but with adult subject matter, as it deals openly with incest, adultery, and murder, the kind of murky territory you’d expect in a swamp.  Yet because it’s seen through the eyes of a child, she may not be a trustworthy witness, which is called into question almost immediately when their home opens up into a raucous Cajun dance party, featuring classic 50’s and 60’s R&B songs, Bobby Bland - Turn On Your Love Light (2:37), Geno Delafose’s C'est Pas La Peine Brailler (3:26), James “Sugar Boy” Crawford’s Sugar Boy and his Cane Cutters - "Overboard" (2:27), RAY CHARLES "Don't Let The Sun Catch You Crying ... (3:46), Etta James - A Sunday Kind Of Love (3:21), and JOHNNY ACE - "ANYMORE" (1955) (3:02), with Louis causing a spectacle dancing first with an overly flirtatious family friend Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson) before dancing with his oldest daughter Cisely (Meagan Good), which sends Eve flying out the door in a fit of jealousy, hiding out in an old carriage house, where she witnesses her father having sex with Matty Mereaux, a traumatizing moment, as she places her father on a pedestal.  When she shares her secret with Cisely, a Daddy’s girl who is even more enamored with her father, her sister places doubt in her eyes, suggesting it may have been something far more innocent, demonstrating how easily memory can be reconfigured, and how a change in perspective may alter the way viewers understand existing truths. 

Among the most financially successful independent films of the year, part of the film’s popularity was the heavy endorsement of Chicago film critic Roger Ebert who placed it #1 on his Best of the Year lists for 1997, Roger Ebert: 1967-2006, with film executives surprised to discover that more than half the audience was white for what was essentially a black film, featuring well-developed characters often overlooked in movies, creating a successful crossover effect, playing in both arthouses and mainstream theaters alike, transcending the idea of a “black film” with no white characters.  The central focus is Eve’s relationship with her mother, father, and her siblings, yet perhaps the most intriguing is her close relationship with her aunt Mozelle, the spiritual center of their world and the anchor of the family, drawing independent parallels between the kindred spirits of Louis and his sister, both consumed by an emancipating free spirit, yet Mozelle has unusual sensitivity and insight, which manifests itself in the “gift of sight,” as she’s a psychic reader who can predict the future, spending her time healing the wounds of others in need, drawing upon her mythical ancestral heritage, which is outside the traditions of Western society, as black women are entrusted guardians of their family stories, reaching into southern black folk traditions that are being passed on to Eve.  While she’s able to see into the lives of others, she’s blind to her own deficiencies, feeling cursed, as all three of her husbands have suffered violent deaths, yet she stands in stark contrast to Elzora (Diahann Carroll), who is something of a carnival sideshow, telling fortunes for a dollar, viewed by Mozelle as a cheap stereotypical caricature of a voodoo priestess.  The beauty of Mozelle’s dynamic character is that she’s not exoticized, instead she’s part of the family legacy, an integral part of the landscape, part of the memory, and part of the surrounding community culture, bringing a unique artistic sophistication to the forefront, willingly sharing her experiences while commiserating with Eve, Eve's Bayou (1997) - Life Is Filled With Goodbyes Scene (8/11) | Movieclips YouTube (3:11).  While the film follows the female-centric traditions of Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (1991), creating a provocative narrative around strong female characters in a rural setting, beautifully shot by Amy Vincent, edited by Terilyn A. Shropshire, where women have important roles behind the camera, yet it’s largely a performance-driven film, with a constantly curious Jurnee Smollett holding her own against more seasoned veterans, showing early signs of the actress she would become.  The child vantage point recalls Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter (1955), where truth has a way of remaining elusive, often disguised in various forms with deceptive vantage points, including a constantly shifting narrative, yet particularly for a 10-year old the essential drama surrounds Eve’s ability to unravel the truth.  The uncertainty and unreliability of memory remains a predominant theme, while the narration suggests she’s looking back at her life as an adult, recalling a series of impactful events that evolved into an indelible memory that changed the course of her life.   

Told in a Southern Gothic tradition, evoking the cultural heritage of backwoods Louisiana with hanging Spanish moss, Cypress trees, and water everywhere, where lies are woven into the fabric of the family, each seems to hold their own fabrication of the truth, largely covering up for the sins of the father, who ignores his familial obligations with his own wife, where that neglect leaves her a nervous wreck, alone and isolated, as her husband spends late night hours away from home as a serial philanderer.  In compensation, the oldest daughter Cisely sits and waits for her father to return home at night, receiving the affection usually reserved for the wife, while Roz overcompensates by heaping affection on their only son Poe (Jake Smollett).  Left out of the equation is Eve, confused by the moral ambiguities in the adults surrounding her, unable to see through the lies and deception.  She seeks refuge in Mozelle, sharing a psychic ability to see things before they happen, as Eve dreams about the death of Mozelle’s most recent husband shortly before he was killed in an accident.  Mozelle is simply one of the most fully realized characters in cinema, defiantly individualistic, emboldened and beautiful, never afraid to speak her mind, but she’s overprotective of her brother, knowing full-well the disgrace and disrespect he shows his own family, hiding his weakness and moral shortcomings, while both young daughters look up to him with unabated reverence, afraid their mother will drive him away.  But Mozelle has to face her own demons, especially when she meets a new man in her life, Julian Grayraven (Vondie Curtis-Hall, the director’s husband), a black Indian, where a spark of love is in the air, yet her track record is abysmal.  The story she tells Eve about the fate of one of her husbands is simply chilling, both in what it reveals about her and the awesome and mesmerizing power of a beautifully told story, Eve's Bayou (1997) - Mozelle, Hosea and Maynard Scene (7/11) | Movieclips YouTube (3:28).  Among the more eloquent scenes is a walk out on a country road by the side of the lake on a gorgeous sunny day with Mozelle and her sister-in-law Roz, being honest and open with each other, which has a way of opening doors, allowing a sliver of honesty into what seems like tragic lives.  What becomes more evident, as time goes on, is that each character has their own vantage point, seeing the same things, but in different ways.  This confusion leads to a spiral of self-delusion, as Eve grows protective of her sister, who comes to her with a horrible secret that brings tragic consequences, wanting to save her from the incestuous betrayal of her own father, looking to use spells and powers to eradicate what she perceives as evil, certain her father is to blame, looking to cast a magic spell upon him, even wishing he was dead.  The scenes between the sisters are fraught with power and emotion, but grow heart-wrenching at the strange turn of events, where the truth of what really happens remains ambiguous, with different outcomes depending on who you listen to, as every action has a ripple effect, yet in the end what stands out is a sisterly love that endures, uncertain about everything else in their future, but they still have each other, leaving audiences to grapple with the deeply complex moral implications. 

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