Watching Eve’s Bayou is to experience something that is strangely familiar whilst it is set in such an exotic landscape. A tale set in the bayou country of Louisiana, it is soaked in the idea of history and memory. The setting for Lemmons film evokes an emotional response in us – a place we feel we know even if we have not visited it. And as, for example, the mountains and coastline for Ireland carries with it universal stories and a particular connection with myths and legends that constantly interject into the present, so this landscape, as it is so unchanging, carries its past into its present. What Kasi Lemmons has achieved is to evoke the mythological and the ethereal so vividly within the setting of the film, but used it as a context for a family melodrama that is both modern and ancient because it is a story that can and is told time and again. And, therefore, we respond to the characters and are engaged in their story from a very human point of view. In addition, whilst we might not share that exact-same history of those characters, we can empathise with that feeling of being part of a family and a place and a set of cultural superstitions that form our home.
The film is narrated by the older Eve as she looks back at a particular devastating event in her childhood. Eve is a classic character – a young girl aged 10 – sitting on threshold between childhood and adulthood. As such, she instinctively responds to and takes part in those traditions of her world whilst being on the cusp of moving against them. She is her Aunt Mozelle’s tender and faithful acolyte as she receives suffering people to give them the gift of seeing where their loved ones have got to. No-one in the story doubts Mozelle’s second sight and vision, but the children rebel against their beleaguered mother’s reaction to these warnings. What performs so dramatically in this film is the juxtaposition of the ancient culture and (relatively) modern family existing there – with the incendiary tensions of an unhappy marriage and teenage children who are beginning to see what is really happening. The events of the film are pure melodrama in both senses – the extremes of violent action and the claustrophobic (and so easily dysfunctional) life of the family. We could equate it (narratively) to some of Douglas Sirk’s dramas of the 1950s, with the internal struggles of the family and the absolutely, immovably central figure of the woman within that family. Lynn Whitfield’s matriarch (Roz) is a Sirkian concoction of breathtaking beauty, rustling silk (the credits note that her costumes were ‘built’ by Patty Spinale) and sculptured eyebrows. Samuel L. Jackson perfectly encapsulates the persuasive charm of the patriarch, Louis, who is, ultimately, more callow and confused than impressive. Unlike Sirk, it is not Roz’s story throughout the film and it is only by the end that we truly appreciate her strength and her power. When Roz (mother) embraces her youngest (male) child, Poe, so intensely at the beginning of the film, she seems a little mean to her second daughter, Eve. The moment is quickly passed into a light-hearted chase – but later we can reflect that that embrace was for the only child that was hers entirely – Louis has stolen the two elder daughters entirely for himself. By the end, she has become a powerful centre who has truly learned how to ‘look to her children’ as Diahann Carroll’s soothsayer has warned her to do.
The frustrations of the marriage are the central focus of this film, with a representation of an African-American family who are affluent and well-regarded in their community – occupying the space that is generally reserved for WASPish families in American cinema. The ‘issue’ for these characters is (unusually) not race and its struggles – but their internal desires. Just as in Todd Haynes’s Far from Heaven (the Sirkian-influenced exploration of repression in marriage) we are focussed on the women’s response. In Eve’s Bayou, however, it’s not the mother but the child who is our centre of consciousness as we watch. Eve also actively drives the narrative. Eve hates with the passion of a ten-year-old towards someone who has harmed the person she most loves and believes in and, as a result, she is the instigator of particular events in the action. The story constantly juxtaposes the feeling of events that are fated (Mozelle’s foreseeing of a child’s accident) and events that are effected by the deliberate (if unknowing) action of people. Eve is responsible for these events if not to blame for them – and the narrative manages to walk this incredibly tight balance without losing sympathy or empathy for any of the characters involved.
It’s interesting that Louis is the doctor – when the film is dense with references to others forms of superstitious healing. These are so often related to the female rather than the male sensibility – the man being related to science (knowing). The film clearly sides with the power of superstition and female ‘knowing’ – the person that can look into your eyes or hold your hands – and just know what you are thinking, is the powerful force within this film.
Which brings me back to Mozelle. Whilst Roz is the desperate housewife, Mozelle is the repository of power in the family. Her voodoo heals where Louis’ medicine is ineffective. Lemmons has written some tour-de-force female protagonists and has decided to shoot them in the style of a costume drama to ensure that, visually on screen, they have maximum impact. Their vibrant costumes are not modern but belong to a different world which enhances our impression that this film is from a different place. Both women are completely desirable and like ‘candy’ on the screen – vivid, strong and ultra-feminine. However, this is not a costume drama staged rigidly in one era of American life – the 50s or 60s, that we can recognise and immediately to give us a context for behaviour and morals. Instead, Lemmons appears to be seeking after a much more ambiguous feeling – a time outside of any era and linking to the ancient landscape it sits in. It has been termed Southern Gothic and to draw on a comment for a very different film (Sling Blade): “As in most Southern gothic fiction, the past weights heavily on the present and it gives Sling Blade an ominous feel.” (Greg Meritt: Celluloid Mavericks). The same is true of Eve’s Bayou which is steeped in a feeling of a world living in both past and present, and evoking the mythical resonance of something like Toni Morrison’s Beloved. Julie Dash’s Daughters of the Dust (a graduate of the same film school as Charles Burnett) is resonant here – about the families of the Gullah community – reiterating ancient customs through their poetic language. In Daughters they are reiterating them just at the point they know they are about to lose them – as the community moves from the islands onto the mainstream. In Eve’s Bayou there is no sense of a threat of change impinging on the lives of those – the final shot shows the sisters watching a sunset with every possibility of life remaining the same, the ebb of loss and tragedy an accepted part of that experience.
Winning an Independent Spirit Award for this film in 1998, Kasi Lemmons has continued to act and direct. She is currently in pre-production with a gospel musical version of the nativity story (co-written) called Black Nativity. Roy tells me the (very good) print of Eve’s Bayou arrived recently at Bradford covered in dust – what a shame it’s seemingly become a hidden visual and thematic jewel.
The self-confident composition and pacing of the film left me silently applauding.
But I was also interested in the response of critics to its evident success with different audiences and the attempt to put the film in one of the boxes labelled, “African-American”, “Mainstream” or “Crossover”.
And that led me to some fascinating and productive e-mail exchanges with Jari Honora of the LA Creole Association. And I have concluded that it is a Creole film with all the difficulty that presents both for the category makers and the white society behind the “mainstream”. True that ever since the Civil War the numbers of white Creole staying loyal to that cultural identity has been declining but none the less it remains a potent cultural identity that is not reducible to the “black”/”white” categories.
The location is specific in two senses: in Louisiana west of New Orleans in the “old” semi-rural Francophone heartland and in time, just before the upheavals of the civil rights movement and the southern white reaction to it.
And the Baptiste family is one of the od established Creole families. Before selling up and moving south, the West Indies raised, Paris educated, Jean Baptiste de Sable founded a trading settlement that grew up to become Chicago. This family has a grand history pre-dating the Union and the Federal imposed categories.
So in many ways this film is very precisly located outside the critical categories on race. That may be a very subtle cultural bomb Kasi Lemmons lit under those categories. It certainly would help explain the widespread, absolutely deserved audience acclaim.