Eve's Bayou (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The bayous of Louisiana are a strange and wonderful place -- a world unto their own, overflowing with a wealth of story and thematic possibilities. Whether it's the heated mystery of The Big Easy, the nonstop action of Hard Target, or the gory scares of Candyman, the cajun state has attracted projects in search of a setting like no other in North America. It is here, amidst the darkly beautiful swamps, that first-time director Kasi Lemmons has set Eve's Bayou, a fascinating tale of guilt, consequences, and voodoo.

One of the most important rules of writing -- whether it's screenwriting, article writing, or book writing -- is to start with a compelling first line. Eve's Bayou takes that lesson to heart, opening with this refrain: "Memory is a selection of images. Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old…" The moment the narrator speaks these words, our curiosity is piqued, and, for the next 100 minutes, our attention is engaged as we ponder their significance. The next time they are uttered, in the film's closing frames, they have acquired new meaning.

Beginning with this preamble, Eve's Bayou takes us to the Tennessee Williams country of the deep south and introduces us to the rarest of motion picture institutions: an affluent black family. (Judging by the movies, most blacks live in inner city ghettos.) Ultimately, however, this film is not about skin color, but about the deeply-rooted bonds that join women together, which not even the most tragic of mistakes can obliterate. The setting -- a small town in Louisiana during the 1950s -- serves its purpose, but the themes broached by the writer/director are anything but parochial in nature.

The focus of the film is on the five-member Batiste family. There's Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), a prominent and respected doctor; Roz (Lynn Whitfield), the beautiful, elegant mother of a son and two daughters; and their children -- 14-year old Cisely (Meagan Good), 10-year old Eve (Jurnee Smollett), and 9-year old Poe (Jake Smollett). Members of the extended family, particularly Louis' mother (Ethel Ayler) and sister, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), are never far away. On the surface, Louis is the perfect husband and father, but he doesn't pay much attention to his marriage vows. His wife, who knows of his indiscretions, conveniently looks the other way, but, when his daughter Eve catches him in the act, the issue becomes a festering sore in the family's stability. The situation is further exacerbated when Cisely's near-worshipful affection for her father threatens to cross a forbidden barrier and when a voodoo priestess (Diahann Carroll) predicts disaster. "Look to your children," she cryptically intones to a frantic Roz.

Eve's Bayou deals frankly with the consequences of actions -- there's no moralizing or condescending to the audience. Louis pays both an emotional and a tangible price for his many affairs. Cisely's clouding of the truth has its own unfortunate result. And an ill-considered yet passionate decision on Eve's part has devastating ramifications. The film also makes a point of showing that everything is not as it seems, especially in the tangled web of family relationships. Lemmons applies the technique of the unreliable narrator to several sequences to illustrate how a slight change in perception can alter the impact of a scene. On two occasions, she presents events from varying viewpoints to demonstrate that minor differences can lead to a vastly different interpretation.

The strongest element of Eve's Bayou is the character interaction. Every member of the family (except young Poe) is developed into a unique individual, and all of the relationships are well-defined. The changes that occur are perfectly reasonable. What family doesn't go through an upheaval when secrets come into the open? The low-key plot, with its elements of voodoo and spiritual sight, allows us to the opportunity to get to know the Batistes. Lemmons' fine writing is complimented by a series of strong performances. Samuel L. Jackson, whose involvement was critical to getting Eve's Bayou made, is as solid as ever in a role that requires a less-flamboyant portrayal than we have become accustomed to. Lynn Whitfield radiates cool beauty while Debbi Morgan emanates sensual heat. Jurnee Smollett and Meagan Good, the young actors playing Eve and Cisely, are both believable as sisters with close ties and hidden jealousies. Smollett captures the essence of a 10-year old without ever seeming too cute or precocious.

If there's a weakness in Eve's Bayou, it's that the setting isn't used as effectively as it could be. Placing the film in and around the swamps of Louisiana affords a rich opportunity for atmosphere that isn't utilized. Several throwaway shots of reeds and water establish the location, but do little to imbue the bayou with a life of its own. Also, Lemmons' occasional use of collages of black-and-white images seems a little too artsy. Thankfully, the voiceover is confined to the beginning and end, and the writer/director obeys one of the most important tenants of film making: show, don't tell.

A subtle picture that treads a delicate line between drama and psychological thriller, Eve's Bayou is refreshing in that doesn't attempt to replicate Hollywood's ideal "black" film (either a bawdy sex comedy or an urban drama). Rather than perpetuating racial stereotypes, Eve's Bayou defies them, creating several well-rounded characters and placing them in a deceptively complex story that builds to a forceful conclusion. It's a movie like no other on the market today, and deserves to find its audience.

Eve's Bayou (United States, 1997)

Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 1997-11-07
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1