by Miguel E. Rodriguez
DIRECTOR: Kasi Lemmons
CAST: Jurnee Smollett, Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan
MY RATING: 9/10
ROTTEN TOMATOMETER: 83% Certified Fresh
PLOT: What did little Eve see–and how will it haunt her? Husband, father, and womanizer Louis Batiste is the head of an affluent family, but it’s the women who rule this gothic world of secrets, lies, and mystic forces.
[Author’s note: this review ended up being vaguer than I intended, due to a pivotal moment that, the more unexpected it is, the more effective it becomes. Apologies in advance.]
Eve’s Bayou is one of the most self-assured, naturalistic directorial debuts I’ve ever seen. Director Kasi Lemmons (you may remember her as Ardelia, Clarice Starling’s roommate at the FBI Academy in The Silence of the Lambs) has created a movie that feels less like a movie and more like a recreation of someone’s memories, not quite like a documentary, exactly, but it feels…real. It’s melodramatic, but it’s not pumped up with overwrought hand-wringing and dramatic close-ups. It’s fiction, but with a ring of truth that I usually only see in the best biopics. I was delightfully and unexpectedly engrossed from beginning to end.
Let’s talk about that beginning, to start with. The time is 1962, in a little Louisiana town called Eve’s Bayou. (There may be white folk in this town, but the movie stars no Caucasian actors whatsoever, kind of like the Black Cinema equivalent of the Bechdel test; it’s just one more surprising and refreshing quality of this wonderful movie.) Over the course of a lively evening party hosted at their house, we meet and learn a little bit about each member of the Batiste family, just like the opening sequence of The Godfather, which I didn’t realize until just this moment…neat. There’s Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), the town doctor and rakish charmer, husband to the gorgeous Roz (Lynn Whitfield) and father to three children, 9-year-old Poe (Jake Smollett), 14-year-old Cisely (Meagan Good), and 10-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett [Black Canary in Birds of Prey, my GOD, I’m old!]), named after her hometown. This opening scene establishes that very specific tone I mentioned earlier, one of matter-of-fact realism somehow combined with entertaining cinema.
There’s also Roz’s sister, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), a woman twice widowed at the top of the film, and who later worries she may be cursed by God. In an emotional monologue later on, she wonders why God has seen fit to bring so much misfortune to her life, and also wonders how terrible it might be to discover there was no purpose to it at all. Mozelle has a side business in telling fortunes, and she is quite good at it. (This will come in handy later, but no spoilers.)
In a nutshell: Eve wanders out to the toolshed late that night and witnesses her father being WAY too friendly with another man’s wife. The protective Cisely urges Eve not to tell anyone what she saw. A local voodoo priestess, Elzora (Diahann Carroll), tells Roz to “look to your children”, so she forbids her children from leaving the house unattended for weeks. Louis continues his womanizing ways as the town doctor. Roz finally lets her kids out of the house when…well, again, no spoilers. Life continues at a leisurely pace without ever being boring.
I love how the setting is established and mined for its mood in Eve’s Bayou. I know there have been countless other films set in and around swamps, Louisiana and otherwise. But Eve’s Bayou is one for the books. There is something about the way the cypress trees and dark waters and Spanish moss are photographed that made me almost smell the swamp. Maybe the intent was to give a visual hint or cue to the secrets being kept in the Batiste family, especially later in the film. I don’t want to get all “film theory” on this topic, but it’s just something I noticed specifically as the movie progressed. It’s masterfully done.
I enjoyed the little details that, again, made everything feel like real memories of a real family. What does a kid do in a large house in the early ‘60s when they can’t leave? No Nintendo, no Netflix. Just bouncing a ball against the wall. Or teasing your siblings. Or getting mad when someone won’t get out of the damn bathroom. The Batiste house has a large spreading tree in their front lawn, and one of its huge branches grows just low and long enough for Eve to use as a makeshift hammock. I liked that. There could just as easily have been a bench or a chair, but no, she sits on the tree branch, and that feels exactly right.
Mirrors are put to interesting and innovative use in Eve’s Bayou. Mozelle tells Eve a story about how she once took a lover, and he confronted her husband with a gun. As she tells the story, she approaches the mirror, and in its reflection, behind her, we see pieces of the story taking place, all done practically with no fancy special effects. It’s simple, and it may have been done before or since, but I can’t recall this effect ever being so…effective. It was downright spooky at times. At one point, she even walks into the scene that we are watching in the mirror, an elegant visual representation of someone getting lost in their memories.
The opening narration gives us a hint of what must, or may, eventually happen in Eve’s Bayou: “The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.” There is a key moment later in the film when, because of that narration, the inevitable outcome of a particular situation is perhaps easy to see, but the film is so effectively constructed and edited that I was still wondering how it would happen. That’s not easy to do. Kudos to the screenplay and the director once again.
Eve’s Bayou was an exceedingly pleasant surprise, a movie told from an unfamiliar perspective that still feels familiar in many ways, because human emotion is universal. When Roz and Louis fight downstairs, and Eve can hear them through her upstairs door, and she covers her head with her pillow, I was taken back to memories of my own parents’ divorce and their heated arguments, things I never really talk or even think about, but this movie captured that vibe perfectly. While the movie does have its own mission and ultimate destination, it remembers something very important: the more specific you make a scene with its details, the more universal the appeal, regardless of your race, color, or creed.