Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons. US, 1997, 109 min.
Available on home video and VOD. Recently screened at the Harvard Film Archive.
The opening sequence of Eve’s Bayou—which depicts a cocktail party, introduces nearly all of the film’s primary characters, and runs almost exactly 20 minutes—belongs in the pantheon of Great First Reels.
It begins with a stretch of voiceover spoken over black-and-white images of Louisiana landscape that describes the history of where the film takes place: “The town we lived in was named after a slave,” says the woman on the soundtrack. “It’s said that when General John Paul Batiste was stricken with cholera, his life was saved by the powerful medicine of an African slave woman called Eve. In return for his life, he freed her and gave her this piece of land by the Bayou. Perhaps in gratitude, she bore him 16 children. We are the descendants of Eve and Jean Paul Batiste, I was named for her.”
Around that point the black-and-white shifts into vivid, earthy color, and we arrive in 1962, when this Eve was just a girl, age 10 (Jurnee Smollett), living rather well in a luxurious home on that Bayou with her younger brother (Jake Smollet), her older sister Cicely (Meagan Good), her grandmother (Ethel Ayler), and her parents, strong proper society-woman Rox (Lynn Whitfield) and debonair town doctor Louis (Samuel L. Jackson). And for an extended period of time, we’re simply observing the characters interacting at this party, seeing who dances with who and who feels jealous in response, listening to the older women gossiping on the couch, and following the kids around while they play games and pranks to the simultaneous amusement and annoyance of the adults surrounding them.
About 10 minutes in, these low-stakes dramatic conflicts reach a boiling point, causing Eve to run off towards a secret hiding spot. Then Louis, being Louis, lands upon that same hiding spot for his latest infidelity, waking the young girl and setting into motion a truly high-stakes domestic crisis that carries through and beyond the rest of Eve’s Bayou.
The second half of the party sequence, which follows that incident in the dark, depicts the immediate recollection and psychological interrogation of the events that just occurred, first via a conversation between Eve and Louis, and then in a second one between Cecily and Eve. These dialogues establish yet another element that carries through Eve’s Bayou—its depiction of how memories are constantly reshaped by all matters of subsequent experience, to ultimately become indicative of not truth but personal narrative instead.
This is a concept that writer/director Kasi Lemmons explores not only on a dramatic level, but also on a purely cinematic one. Many of the film’s compositions are coded or blocked to subtly reveal the individual perspective that is twisting or manipulating the reality of the events being visualized1. The black-and-white overlay soon returns as well, now representing visions that are either prescient or unreliable—an either/or question that is left entirely to interpretation. “I’m going to tell you what happened,” Cecily says to Eve at the end of the party sequence, trying to regain some agency over the events of her own life—and then Lemmons’ film ecstatically aestheticizes the ways in which people seek to do so.
Eve’s Bayou was Lemmons’ first feature-length film as either screenwriter or director, although per an extremely illuminating profile article published by The Washington Post in 1997, it began as little more than a writing sample. Lemmons, then known as a screen actor, skipped a pilot season to write the first drafts, not really hoping to produce Eve’s Bayou but instead planning to use the script to book further commercial writing jobs. That was how it got to its producer Caldecot Chubb—he was thinking about hiring Lemmons to write an adaptation of the Barbara Kingsolver novel Pigs in Heaven (1993), and was sent the draft as an example of her prior work—only to find himself moved by Eve’s Bayou to such an extent that he signed on to produce that project instead.
Early attempts to finance the movie were unsuccessful, however, for reasons that Chubb lays out rather bluntly in that Post article: “Number 1: an entirely black cast. Number 2: a story about women. Number 3: from a child’s point of view, but not a child’s movie. Number 4: complex subject matter. Number 5: a first-time director… [and] Number 6: and the director’s pregnant.”2
Efforts to connect the script with potential directors were also unsuccessful, and Lemmons, who had previously written and directed just one short film, is said to have taken the director’s chair only after offers to more experienced filmmakers were turned down. She told the Post: “I thought, If we’re going to look at first-time directors, why couldn’t I do it?”
Thinking about the film in terms of other American film debuts, I end up at Elia Kazan’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945), which like Eve’s Bayou seems to find the meeting point between a very specific regional experience on the one side, and the audiovisual vernacular of studio-produced Hollywood melodramas on the other, granting those personal geographical experiences an external grandeur to match their internal depth. In line with products of the A-feature studio system that Kazan found himself working in, Lemmons’ Bayou is a work of similarly extraordinary craftsmanship, written in a traditional mode turned anew (the filmmaker has called it “a black Southern Gothic melodrama”), and performed by a cast of actors who immediately achieve an intimate and highly productive chemistry (one where even their wordless glances register in concrete terms).
Those last qualities were surely buoyed by the very real sense of familiarity shared among the cast, another characteristic not too far removed from that of ’40s and ’50s Hollywood. Lemmons also commented on for the Post: “The black show business community [of New York in the 1980s and early ’90s] was so small that I literally knew everyone I cast in [Eve’s Bayou],” she said, and the many benefits of their presumed shorthand are totally clear on the screen.
For instance Jackson, also a producer on the film, gives one of the richest and densest performances of his legendary career—which makes it one of the richest and densest performances in all of American movies, period. His Louis is abundantly charismatic, a major quality in its own right. But the performance goes way deeper by also revealing and then interrogating the anxieties and self-doubt which come along with all the character’s charms, complicating the man to an immense extent. And those revelations occur not in the dialogue—Lemmons’ script is rarely if ever so on the nose—but rather in brief reflective moments, and sometimes even between sentences, where they’re expressed purely by gesture.
Jackson spoke about the film with the Post as well, giving a quote that hints toward the myriad ways in which Lemmons’ film seems to link and develop a connection between the ordinary and the extraordinary: “Louis Batiste was definitely someone I hadn’t seen before,” Jackson said, rather tragically. “A family man with interesting conflicts and a romantic and glamorous life. I don’t get to play those kinds of guys.”
What follows the cocktail party of the first reel, across the 85 or so minutes of the film that remains, is a summertime bildungsroman where the fault lines in Eve’s family sends her searching for support first within it and then outside it. Beyond the characters already mentioned, crucial is Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) and local voodoo practitioner Elzora (Diahann Carroll), who come to fulfill a sort of good witch/bad witch binary in the young girls’ developing mind, a dichotomy the film doesn’t confirm but instead complicates—which by now is basically its whole MO.
Their entry into the primary narrative also further establishes a supernatural element only hinted at during the opening sequence, most prominently the “second sight” that Eve and Mozelle both seem to experience. That becomes another form of vision, alongside memory and “reality,” that is folded into the visual design of the film—blurring even further any lines remaining between the objective and the subjective. Vitally, the last movement of Eve’s Bayu doesn’t restore clarity so much as it confronts the very concept of it.
Imbuing raw, specific, and realistically-textured family drama with the cosmic significance and unreal theatricality of a studio-produced melodrama and pushing it all towards a place quite defiantly unresolved, Eve’s Bayou stands out now as one of the great American filmmaking debuts of the last few generations.
1. At this point, depicting what we might call multiple planes of visual reality has become Lemmons’ directorial hallmark. Her most recent film, Harriet (2019), depicts Tubman as a Joan of Arc-like figure receiving messages from God that are presented in vaguely abstracted black-and-white not dissimilar to Eve’s “second sight” in Bayou. And Lemmons’ film before that, Black Nativity (2013), is a musical that shifts between ostensibly real-world dialogue scenes and choreographed dance sequences by staging the musical numbers within dreams and visions the characters are experiencing.
Yet for me the most exciting of Lemmons’ films after Eve’s Bayou is her second feature The Caveman’s Valentine (2001), where Samuel L. Jackson stars as one Romulus Ledbetter, who at the film’s beginning is partially separated from his family, suffering from severe mental illness, and living in Manhattan’s Inwood Park. In this film, the second plane of reality is Romulus’s visions, which primarily depict an abstract dance performance (whether the scene is completely imagined or a warped memory from the character’s time at Julliard is left unconfirmed).
Meanwhile the film itself, as a whole, is not so much a character piece but is actually very much in the tradition of post-golden age neo-detective pulp: Romulus finds a body outside his cave, and because he’s perceived as a suspect he’s then drawn into the case as an unofficial detective, mostly via social class-crossing dialogue scenes that alternate between contentious and seductive, right out of Chandler or Hammett.
The case leads Romulus into a vaguely satirical burlesque of the NYC fine art/photography scene, which allows Lemmons to perform another deep subculture dive. Ledbetter’s background as a concert pianist allows him entry into the wealthy and white spaces of that scene, which he needs to access in order to conduct his amateur investigation. And wih that class-specific conflict, the real drama of the film gets diverted away from the central mystery and instead towards the more general divisions that exist between characters and their respective social dynamics or hierarchies.
And in that, The Caveman’s Valentine rigorously articulates an unsparing vision of the class politics and internal prejudices that silently but overarchingly conspire against both the homeless and mentally ill in this country, specifically in urban settings, eventually reaching an understated climax that is, again, totally besides the point of the detective narrative. Instead it’s a shattering, plot-adjacent dialogue scene between Romulus and his daughter where she essentially reveals—with both sincerity and cruelty—that her love for him is on some level dependent on Romulus reaching a level of mental stability that he cannot by any means actually reach. In this scene and in others, Lemmons once again shifts across the planes between a dialogue-based theatrical reality and expressive abstracted clips representing the life of the mind, and not just for show, or for aesthetic fashion, but instead to push down further on dramatic and thematic pressure-points highly specific to her characters, the milieu they populate, and the relationships they’re working through.
There is, notably, a jitteriness to The Caveman’s Valentine, a deeply irregular rhythm far removed from the lyrical cutting of Eve’s Bayou. But that seems, upon reflection, entirely in line with the greater aims of Lemmons’ second feature. Her Caveman’s Valentine reflects on our collective impatience with so many of our peers, fellow citizens, and even family members, a study it accomplishes—very brilliantly—by shifting its focus away from and even creating audience impatience around the main potboiler narrative that is ostensibly what got us into the car in the first place.
2. Sadly, Lemmons’ would have further struggles with the financiers of Eve’s Bayou even after the movie was financed and produced. To wit, there is a “director’s cut” of the film, which is currently unavailable on home video but does screen on rare occasions from a single 35mm print that she controls herself. That cut reflects Lemmons’ final version of the film as it existed before a major change was mandated by at least one of the film’s backers. “The changes are distinct to the film’s entire philosophy”, reported critic Nick Allen at Rogerebert.com in 2016, following a showing of the original cut presented by the director herself. “An entire character was taken out from the story, a physically disabled mute that lives in the house named Uncle Tommy. A financier wanted him out of the movie… His part of the film was important to [Lemmons], as the character was inspired by her great uncle. It said something to me about black families, she stated. Lemmons also explained the process that they went through to remove the character from the shots, using CGI. With a bit of a laugh, Lemmons shared that the post-production crew even made t-shirts with an empty wheelchair on them that said, Where’s Tommy?”