Do you remember the first time your parents ever disappointed you? Not because they refused to buy you a treat or let you stay up late. I’m talking the kind of disappointment that rattled your image of them, and made you see them as not just your parents, but people, flawed people. This major moment is the catalyst of this week’s 52 Films By Women pick: Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou.
The Mississippi-born filmmaker got her start in television as an actress, before making her film debut in Spike Lee’s musical School Daze in 1988. She’d go on to appear in such memorable movies as The Silence of the Lambs and Candyman. Then in 1997, Lemmons made her own movie, writing and directing the original Southern Gothic drama that begins with one hell of a hook:
“The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old.”
This chilling confession comes from a grown Eve as we flash back to that 1962 summer along a Louisiana bayou, where her family was the toast of the Creole population. Fans of Full House and Friday Night Lights will recognize a wee Jurnee Smollett, shouldering this lurid tale of sex, secrets, voodoo and murder. Only 11 when the film came out, Smollet is a force of nature, squealing with mischief most often targeted at her pestering baby brother, tearing through the wild brambles of trees that flank her parents home, and spitting out threats against those who’d cross her.
When we meet her father (Samuel L. Jackson who produced this pic still hot off Pulp Fiction acclaim), his foretold murder is confounding. The small town doctor, Louis Batiste is the life of the party, and the absolute love of Daddy’s Girl Eve, and her 14-year-old sister Cisely (Meagan Good of Brick and Think Like A Man). Then, Eve flees the party, frustrated by how all the adults fawn over her educated and elegant older sister. In doing so, she accidentally discovers with her own eyes how her father is failing his wedding vows with the help of a curvaceous and too-friendly neighbor (Lisa Nicole Carson).
Eve is so shaken by what she sees that she begins to doubt herself. And so Lemmons introduces how fickle memories can be, how malleable, alive and dangerous. This idea is made physical as characters step into recollections, blending memories and the present in a fluid and fascinating staging, that enhances how one pulls on the other. This theme and its elegant visuals, drew Eve’s Bayou scads of praise and accolades, that included Best First Feature from the Spirit Awards. But perhaps most impressive, the drama was singled out by Roger Ebert as the Best Film of 1997, the year Titanic took home that Oscar honor.
On Siskel and Ebert’s year-end review show, the iconic critic compared the film’s family drama to that seen in the acclaimed films of Ingmar Bergman, praising Lemmons’ for placing young Eve at the center of the story, giving audiences a character who “sees everything but doesn’t understand everything.” He went on, “Kasi Lemmons and her cinematographer Amy Vincent paint their world in images that somehow feel real and remembered at the same time…A haunting, poetic film, amazingly mature and assured for a first time director, and it’s my best film of the year.”
Eleven years later, Richard Corliss would declare Eve’s Bayou one of Time’s Top 25 Most Important Movies On Race, alongside Gone With the Wind, The Defiant Ones and Do The Right Thing. He cheered Lemmons writing for how it “weaves a spell of magnolia and menace,” adding ,”Kasi Lemmons invading Faulkner-McCullers territory and made it her own. This is a woman’s film, and a showcase for superb actresses…An indelible tale of childhood wonder and terror, and one of the finest works by a black filmmaker, Eve’s Bayou has a fierce poise that left me grateful, exhausted and nourished. For the restless spirit, here is true soul food.”
Lemmons’ indie wove a unique and compelling tale for a marginalized group too often ignored by mainstream movies. Word of mouth spread, and this performance-driven drama grew a following, and shined a spotlight on an excellent ensemble of black actors, including Lynn Whitfield as the suffering wife and mother, Debbi Morgan as the eccentric aunt with second sight, and Diahann Carroll as the voodoo priestess who lives deep in the swamps. Alive with color and emotion, Eve’s Bayou swells with joy and pain as it tells a defiantly female story that loops in motherhood, sisterhood, marriage, widowhood and the dizzying introduction of menstruation. But the film’s boldest gambit is its ending.
It’s a brave thing to close a film on an ambiguous note. In doing so, a filmmaker is handing her/his story over to the audience for completion. Sometimes, it feels like a cheat. Sometimes it feels like a gift. With Eve’s Bayou, it feels like a challenge.
Memories have been established as slippery things that shift and change depending on mood, desire and perspective. So when young Eve is confronted with a Rashamon moment of conflicting narratives around a pivotal event, she’s forced to decide what she will choose to believe. And Lemmons doesn’t let the audience off the hook with an easy answer. Instead, she interrupts her swells of pink and purple sunsets to intercut the purposefully jarring black and white visions that have disrupted the Batiste’s summer again and again, foretelling doom and death. But this vision is less clear than any other. And so we’re left to wonder who was in the wrong and whether her daddy dearest deserved to die.
Following the success of Eve’s Bayou, Lemmons reteamed with Jackson for The Caveman’s Valentine, then helmed the Don Cheadle-fronted biopic Talk to Me and the ensemble musical Black Nativity, which starred Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Jennifer Hudson and Mary J. Blige.
Kristy Puchko invites you to tweet at her with your #52FILMSBYWOMEN picks.