Why ‘Eve’s Bayou’ Is a Great American Art Film

Eves Bayou

This guest post written by Amirah Mercer appears as part of our theme week on Women Directors.

When Eve’s Bayou, the writing and directorial debut of filmmaker Kasi Lemmons, opened in 1997, Roger Ebert named it the best film of 1997 and it was the top-grossing independent film that year, but that didn’t stop it from being canonized, years later, as just “one of the finest works by a black filmmaker” (Time) and a “contemporary classic in black cinema” only. The story of a family burdened by salacious and supernatural secrets in 1962 Louisiana, the movie has become one of the finer American films in the Southern gothic tradition; but with a Black director and an all-Black cast, Eve’s Bayou has been unceremoniously booted from its deserving recognition as the fantastic, moody art film it is.

Lemmons’s family drama is told from the perspective of Eve Batiste — played with gut-wrenching sophistication by a then 10-year-old Jurnee Smollett-Bell — who is the descendant of a woman, a slave, also named Eve, and her master. Though not all Southern gothic stories, which typically explore dark and grotesque themes set in the South, delve into the supernatural, this one does. Eve’s well-to-do family is steeped in the sixth sense, most visibly via Debbie Morgan’s Aunt Mozelle, a woman who can foretell the future yet, tragically, cannot see her own fate, as well as with the title character, Eve, whose budding clairvoyance takes a dark and consequential turn. Samuel L. Jackson plays the patriarch, a successful yet philandering doctor whose indiscretions and, specifically, a “did he, didn’t he” moment with his eldest daughter (Meagan Good) disrupt the Batiste family forever.

As a director, Lemmons’s wide, sweeping shots of the hazy Louisiana bayou enhance the spirituality of the place; at the same time, she does not get lost in the expansive Batiste estate. Her critical director’s eye focuses in on three, four, five members of the family at a time, creating such an intimate environment that, as a viewer, you feel uncomfortably crowded in with the Batistes — their dread is your dread.

Still, it’s Lemmons’s mixing of time, of past and present in a single shot, that is her most haunting storytelling technique. When Aunt Mozelle, who is cursed to life live as a perpetual widow, recounts the murder of one of her husbands to niece Eve, the involved players appear in a mirror behind Eve and Mozelle, in which Mozelle jumps from past to present in her narrative, moving in and out of the mirror in time. It’s a chilling scene — made even more otherworldly by Smollet-Bell’s wide-eyed wonderment — and it underscores the psychological scarring the film’s future events will have on its characters.

Eves Bayou

When I googled the best Southern gothic American films, a list that Eve’s Bayou certainly belongs on, the most frequently recognized works were A Streetcar Named Desire, 1991’s Cape Fear, The Beguiled (a little-known Clint Eastwood film), and Robert Mulligan’s 1962 film version of To Kill a Mockingbird. The poetic southern charm of Elia Kazan’s Streetcar; the guilt-ridden anguish of Cape Fear; the deadly temptation in The Beguiled; these themes echo in Lemmons’s debut work. Still, Eve’s Bayou’s defining strength as a Southern gothic work is in the way Lemmons chooses to share the Batistes’ misfortunes with us, through little Eve’s eyes. As with To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee’s literary classic, the loss of childhood innocence is the disturbing truth that we’re forced to reckon with here.

That Eve’s Bayou is now recalled by critics only within a “Black cinema” narrative discredits Lemmons’s beautiful and haunting art film. There’s more to this film than the color of the stars and the woman who made it; though their blackness is certainly important. “I’m an artist. I know my history, I know my roots,” Lemmons has said. “Of course I’m a minority, but that makes it interesting.” One does not need an inherent understanding of Black life in order to empathize with the characters involved in Eve’s Bayou. In making the film, Lemmons shot with an eye towards universality. “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. “They’re people that you’re looking at.”

If Eve’s Bayou has not been recognized alongside the aforementioned films as one of the best in Southern gothic cinema it is because of the way that films created by Black directors are perceived, as being created within a vacuum, intelligible only within a Black-experience context. When The Best Man Holiday beat analysts’ opening-weekend box-office estimates three years ago, the critics were left scratching their heads as to how a Black-led film could have crossover appeal. As I wrote in 2014, the myth around “Black movies” needs to be dispelled. That a film made by a Black woman director is only expected to appeal to a limited number of people, yet equally (if not sometimes more) niche works created by, say, white men are celebrated as universal truths has a dehumanizing effect on Black directors’ works.

But Lemmons’s studied focus on complex and interesting Black characters (she’s also directed Samuel L. Jackson as a detective-esque homeless man in The Caveman’s Valentine and 2007’s Talk to Me stars Don Cheadle as real-life 1960s shock jock Ralph “Petey” Greene) is anything but apologetic: “[These stories] are what I really want to say in a life-mission way.  . . .  You can’t hold me to one subject or one culture in terms of my art.” In the last few years, Lemmons has been attached to direct an adaptation of the New York Times’ best-selling biography The Other Wes Moore for HBO and to adapt Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, two works of literature that, if Eve’s Bayou is any indication, will be beautiful, black-led artistry on-screen.

Also at Bitch Flicks: Eve and the Second Sight‘Eve’s Bayou’ Belongs in the Canon

Amirah Mercer is a writer and editor who focuses on storytelling in fashion and pop culture, with a sharp lens on race and gender. She is currently a copy editor for VanityFair.com, where she also writes for the site’s Style and Culture section. Her recent stories for VF.com have explored black single womanhood on the show Being Mary Jane, in discussion with show creator Mara Brock Akil, and how Instagram “It girl” Violet Benson staked a claim in a male-dominated online-comedy field. Her work has also been featured on Salon, HelloGiggles, and Mic.

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