There are a great deal of classic films. A Streetcar Named Desire, Raging Bull, The Godfather, Rainman, Pretty Woman and just about any Tom Hanks film. However, so rarely is a film centered around minorities among those classic films. Director Kasi Lemmons changed that narrative with Eve’s Bayou on November 7th, 1997.
It was hailed by the late Roger Ebert as the best film of its year. But with that also came the canon parameters of Hollywood. Time called Eve’s Bayou, “One of the finest works by a black filmmaker” and a “contemporary classic in black cinema.” That’s it. That’s the ceiling it was given.
Nevertheless, Eve’s Bayou is more than just a film representative of its talent’s melanin, and saying otherwise is a huge discredit. This Southern Gothic tale is rich and haunting in all forms–something viewers of all ethnicities can receive without feeling blocked from empathy and familiarity.
So, to celebrate its 19th anniversary, here’s five reasons why Eve’s Bayou should be seen for the spectacular specimen of cinema it is.
The Storyline: No Black Pain
Be it teenage pregnancy, rape, abuse, poverty, racism, slavery, single family homes, incarceration, violence etc., black pain is the epicenter of all subject matter when it comes to Hollywood green lights. If there is no sadness, it’s almost as if our stories don’t deserve to be told. Thus, creating a false perception of what it means to be black in America. This effects audiences of all colors. It teaches the public, pain is what is blackness means and anything else is a rare exception. This is another method of neo-slavery. It is rooted in the mind. Eve’s Bayou broke those chains by avoiding those stigmas in its synopsis.
Summer heats up in rural Louisiana beside Eve’s Bayou as the Batiste family tries to survive the secrets they’ve kept and the betrayals they’ve endured.
Louis Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson), the local town doctor with a special bedside manner, is a loving father and philandering husband. His wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield) is forced to admit her family is falling apart when her younger daughter, Eve (Jurnee Smollett), witnesses one of her father’s infidelities. Struggling to make sense of what she has seen, Eve turns to her older sister Cisely, who dismisses her in fear of the truth, and then to her Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), a known psychic and rumored black widow. Unable to find the the understanding she is looking for, Eve decides to take matters into her own hands. As the heat rises so does the tension. For the Batiste family, the ties that bind may not be strong enough to keep them together, and what they learn will change their lives forever. -IMDb
“When I was making Eve’s Bayou, I thought that everyone should be able to understand it and relate to the story,” she told the A.V. Club in 2001.
And relate we could, even without the experience of the film’s exact circumstances. The family was upper middle class with a mixed heritage background. The Father was a slut. The Grandmama took no mess. Eve was a mischievous tomboy. I could go on with this, but as you can see, the subject matter is primary to the gold of the film, not the race of its characters. The race acts as only an ingredient to the story’s contemporary narrative and showcases the rainbow of the black experience. We are more than institutionalized pain. And seeing this play out on film sings to the souls aching for adequate and exceptional representation.
Costumes and Scenery
I remember being a little girl and falling in love with the fashion and silhouettes of Lynn Whitfield and Debbi Morgan. They were pristine and lady like–so classic, like what we could only imagine a black first lady would look like at the time. Their clothing had a life of its own. It became another character, another vessel to cement the mood and character development. Costume designer Karyn Wagner had this to say on her creative process:
There was a fine line that black women had to walk. So many women at that time were in house help, so you had to be beautifully presented or you’d get fired but not so much that you’d in any way show the mistress of the house up. You did not want to attract the wrong kind of attention with your clothes. There were so many divisions of what was appropriate and not to wear as a black women. There were women who purposely would wear hats that were years old to work and then put on current beautiful hats to go to church on Sundays. One of the wonderfully freeing things about making Eve’s Bayou was putting all those things aside and just saying this is an African-American community. It was about them saying this is our community and this is how we live when we don’t have to deal with that outside bullshit called racism. It gave us a chance to create something really beautiful. We were building an all African-American world. I don’t think there was one white person in the whole movie and that was on purpose.
As a costume designer, I believe that you should know everything about a character before they even open their mouths and say anything just by looking at what they are wearing and their environment. In Eve’s Bayou, I wanted the elegance of their lifestyle to be another character in the movie. They were surprised to see a white woman, but once the fitting started, they saw what I had to work with and my ideas about who these women were. I understood these characters inside and out. I worked hard to earn their respect. It’s one of the movies I’m most proud of in my entire career.
When it came to public figures, Wagner used Jackie Kennedy, Eartha Kitt, Billy Holiday, Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge as muses. She also was meticulous in her reasoning for keeping the Batiste women sharp as a tack despite the setting.
The family is living in a place that’s classically dirty and sweaty. It’s pretty hard to walk down a country road in the bayou and not get dirty but yet I was insistent on keeping the shoes and hems clean at all times. There was something about rising above the environment that defined these women for me.
There’s beauty in seeing an African-American film ingrained with customs and languages and rituals of their ancestors–especially with the hot south as their stomping grounds. Much of what makes the Batiste family so interesting are the traditions and values behind their actions. It’s why Eve turns to Voo Doo when she’s angry at her Father. It’s also why Aunt Mozelle can envision what Eve is up to with her clairvoyant talent. Their roots provide a strong foundation for the film to run on.
Jurnee Smollet and her brother Jake played the young Batistes, Eve and Poe. Meagan Good played the older sister Cisely. Their physical makeups are representative of the many features an African-American family can possess–from the sandy red hair down to mahogany skin and off black curls. You can find yourself or someone you know in each character. And only a superb cast can make imagined characters tangible. Anything with the infamous Diahann Caroll is worth its weight in gold. Lynn Whitfield felt like my own Mother, and Samuel L. Jackson, like my Father–even though all was well in my home. The cast made a home for audiences to live in.
The Ambiguous Conclusion
At the end of the movie, viewers are left to decide what actually happened between Cisely and her Father. Was their “kiss” a misunderstanding as the Father communicated, or was there really more to it? Kasi Lemmons explains during the DVD commentary that she, “Always felt that there was something between the two [but] that even they [Cisely and Louis Batiste] are not exactly clear on what happened but that a line had been crossed [between father and daughter]”. And so we never do find out if Eve’s Voo Doo curse works or is warranted on her Father, even after Cisely offers her hands to receive “counseling” from her sister so she can share her memories from that night.
Albeit it a risky choice to leave such things unanswered, it has proved to be a brave and artistic element of story telling in this instance.
All in all, if you haven’t seen Eve’s Bayou, give it a chance. If you’ve seen it long ago, give it another look. The film is ripe with inspiration and creative passion. Its structure paved a lonely road in the industry to move beyond generalizations and historical sadness while displaying the regalness of a culture as opposed to just the scars of a culture. The pain within the film is solely indicative of the family and their drama. Eve’s Bayou‘s narrative is twisted and beautiful–rich in all its peaks and valleys–and truly deserving of a seat at the table for all time classics.