Eve's Bayou': Too Good to Be a 'Black' Film?
by Mia L. Mask,
Cineaste v23, n4 (Fall, 1998):26
Eve's Bayou director Kasi Lemmons is a film industry triple threat. The young artist, whose acting credits include Candyman (1993), Fear of a Black Hat (1993), and Til There Was You (1997), made her screenwriter- director debut with Eve's Bayou, one of the most financially successful independent films released last year. The film was so successful at the box office, earning over $13 million in only a few weeks on an investment of $4 million, that it prompted Trimark executives to find out who wasgoing to see the film, leading them to the surprising discovery that over half of Bayou's moviegoers were white. Not only was it a major crossover vehicle - playing in art houses and mainstream theaters alike - it also dominated the NAACP's Image Awards nominations, beating studio films Soul Food (20th Century-Fox), Rosewood (Warner Bros.) and Amistad (DreamWorks) for a total of seven nominations. It should come as no surprise, however, that Lemmons's picture has been successful, since it is a well-made movie with strong performances, striking cinematography by Amy Vincent, and an unobtrusively dramatic score from Terence Blanchard. What's at issue - for critics who have piled praise on the film - is whether Eve's Bayou is too well made, too universal in its appeal, and too sophisticated in subject matter to be considered a 'black' film.
Bayou begins with voice-over narration spoken by Eve Batiste, as she recalls her childhood in a haunting flashback to the tragic summer her family came apart at the seams. Shown from young Eve's perspective, much of the narrative comes from a child's point of view but not so much as to limit the film's dramatic depth or spiritual mysticism. The opening lines set the tone for a story reminiscent of a Toni Morrison or Zora Neale Hurston novel. "Memory is a selection of images," Eve tells us. "Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was ten years old." From these chilling and enigmatic first lines, audiences gain an introduction to the Batiste clan, an affluent, Creole family living in backwoods Louisiana during the 1960s.
We learn that the folk tale behind the bayou involves miscegenation, land inheritance, and lifesaving witchcraft. According to legend, the Batistes are the descendants of an African slave named Eve and her onetime owner, General Jean-Paul Batiste. That their family history begins with sexual transgression in the form of miscegenation proves ironic. The violation of sexual taboos such as adultery and incest plague the Batiste household, gnawing away at boundaries and bonds between family members, destroying the image they have established and try to maintain for themselves as well as others.
The narrative revolves around Dr. Louis Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson), a prominent smalltown doctor, his beautifully elegant wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield), and their three children, fourteen-year-old Cisely (Meagan Good), ten-year-old Eve (Jurnee Smollett), and nine-year old Poe (Jake Smollett). Louis's stalwart mother (Ethel Ayler) and sultry sister, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), are the nearby extended family. On the surface, Louis is a devoted husband, loving father, and an excellent provider. His wife Roz may have doubts about his fidelity but chooses to keep up appearances and ignore her husband's indiscretions. The facade of bourgeois respectability begins to crumble when Eve accidentally catches her father in the adulterous act, setting off a chain of events that force the family to deal with latent sibling rivalry, repressed jealousy, and incestuous desire.
Eldest daughter Cisely, whose adolescent adoration of her father engenders her own adult self-fashioning, makes a desperate attempt to deny Eve's tearful report she "saw daddy messin' with Matty Meraux." Cisely's sassy defiance in defense of her father's transgressions escalates until a profound misunderstanding eventually turns her against him. At this crucial moment of misinterpreted desire, Lemmons uses the unreliable narrator to demonstrate how a change in perspective alters the way audiences construe a given scene. Unfortunately, this same scene becomes the reference point for the film's cliche conclusion during which the narrator speaks rapturously about the inaccessibility of truth.
The central focus of Eve's Bayou may be prepubescent Eve's relationships with mother, father, and siblings, but equally important to the story's dramatic trajectory is her Aunt Mozelle Batiste-Delacroix, the spiritual center of their world and Eve's emotional anchor during this period of familial discord. Lemmons prompts audiences to notice parallels between Louis and his sister. Both behave selfishly by entertaining passionate extramarital affairs so lengthy in duration that these affaires d'amour end in tragic standoffs. Yet Mozelle is depicted as the more sorrowful - and therefore sympathetic - of the two. Her sensitivity and spirituality, which manifest as the "gift of sight," ironically fail to prevent recurring tragedy in her own life, making Mozelle a melancholy albeit introspective woman whom the local voodoo priestess (Diahann Carroll) refers to as "cursed." Morgan, whom audiences will remember from lengthy stints on daytime soaps All My Children, Loving, and Generations, is perfectly natural in Bayou as the soulful essence of Creole culture. Bycontrast, seasoned actress Diahann Carroll, under hokey witchdoctor makeup, stands out like a sore thumb, and her underwritten character amounts to little more than caricature.
Perhaps in an attempt to maintain the momentum of its crossover appeal, veteran film critics have been reluctant to celebrate Eve's Bayou as an "African-American" film for fear racial affiliation might frighten off would-be viewers. Andrew Sarris, for example, remarked, "To hail Eve's Bayou as the best African American film ever would be to understate its universal accessibility to anyone on this planet." This statement of unwavering support is also contradictory, implying that ethnic art - in this case African-American cinema - cannot evoke the pathos or poignancy ascribed to mainstream (read: white) cultural products. By extension, the statement reinscribes the hegemony of whiteness as the locus of universal humanism.
As Richard Dyer suggested in his seminal essay, and reiterated more recently in his book White, "Black people can be reduced to their bodies and thus to race, but white people are something else that is realized in and yet is not reducible to the corporeal or racial." Implicit in this reviewer's assessment of Bayou is that it's too good to be stigmatized as a 'black' film. Yet the statement fails to challenge the categories of whiteness and blackness on which the critic's approbation of Bayou - and analytical authority - depend. Other critics, who obligingly lauded Lemmons for making a film that wasn't really about race, echoed such comments.
The critical confusion is a result of Lemmons's representation of upper-middle-class black folks rarely depicted in American popular culture (particularly in the post-Cosby Nineties). Just because Eve's Bayou provides a picture of the Creole bourgeoisie doesn't mean these people - or this film - cease to represent an African-American experience. Most reviewers remain unaware of how fully entrenched most colored folks are in middle-American values and are therefore more likely to praise such films than critique them for a dependence on generic conventions.
Lemmons's portrait of a rural, affluent, French-speaking black family does threaten essentialist notions (including those held among some African Americans) of black experience as definitely urban, ghetto- centered, and youth-culture dominated. As a woman filmmaker, Lemmons provides substantive roles for black actresses beyond the treacherous girlfriend, unwieldy bitch, and commonplace 'ho' roles so familiar to audiences from theatrically released black cinema. While there is a precedent for black directed films in rural settings about women and their daughters, including Julie Dash's Daughters of the Dust (1991), Lemmons's Bayou further challenges the way a male-defined, urban esthetic (macho ghettocentricity) has come to define New Black Cinema. Parallels between Dash's Daughters and Lemmons's Bayou stop there.
To hail Eve's Bayou is to praise a film that received standing ovations at the Telluride and Toronto festivals and earned Kasi Lemmons the Director's Debut Award from the National Board of Review. It is to recognize as enjoyable the charisma of stars Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield. More significantly, to applaud this movie is to acknowledge the strongest performance comes from child actor Jurnee Smollett, who convincingly portrays Eve, despite the few melodramatic moments scripted for a grown woman rather than a precocious preteen. To hail Eve's Bayou, however, as the "best African American film ever" precisely because it's not African American is to fail to acknowledge the reasons for its crossover appeal.
Eve's Bayou: Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons; VHS, color, 108 minutes; distributed by Trimark Pictures, 2644 30th Street, Santa Monica, CA 90405-3009, phone (310) 314-2000.
Mia Mask is completing her Ph.D. in Cinema Studies at New York University and teaches at CUNY/ Staten Island
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