Remembering The Masterpiece ‘Eve’s Bayou’ (1997)

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Hailed as the best film of 1997 by film critic Roger Elbert and also an indie success in the American film world that year, this film spoke to audiences from coast to coast which translated into box office ticket sales and plenty of critiques on race, class and gender. While it is not unique for films to launch the careers of its younger talent but it also solidified the careers of the veterans, this film managed to do so with a strong focus on tying it to the location of filming with talent native to the area and netted on it’s collaborative power.

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Eve’s Bayou (1997)

One must also consider the cultural significance of a black woman whose debut film as a director did fantastic numbers and proved to be a strong contender as a solid film in a lineup which included Titanic. Kasi Lemmon’s directorial debut, Eve’s Bayou is a coming of age tale set in 1960’s Louisiana that featured powerhouse performances, exceptional cinematography and unreliable point of view from a narrator that challenges the story’s true chain of events.

This film not only helped launch the careers of its younger talent but it also solidified the careers of the veterans and helped move some stars from movie star to mega movie star and surely household name. Jurnee Smollet-Bell (Jurnee Smollet before she married later as an adult) who was only ten years old at the time gave an impressive performance as the story’s narrator and youngest child of the Batiste family. She has gone on to give terrific performances in film and television including The Great Debaters directed by Denzel Washington and Underground .

Her real life brother Jake Smollet also played her brother, Poe onscreen as the youngest member of the family and the only boy. Actress Megan Good who was a preteen at the time churned out a believable and superb showing as thirteen year old Cisely Batiste, the eldest daughter of the family who is on the cusps of womanhood by way of puberty but still very much a child. Since then Good has churned out an impressive work history of television shows throughout the years and film spots as well including Californication and Think Like A Man.

Today both Bell and Good are still very active in their acting careers and many count their performances in this film as what has shaped their acting careers. Lisa Nicole Carson, who plays Matty Monroe, the married lover of Louis, while not a child but a young adult found new acting opportunities after this film, going on to be apart of the Ally McBeal cast for many years as well as ER.

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Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, Jake Smollett, and Jurnee Smollett in Eve’s Bayou (1997) IMDB.

In regards to the older, more seasoned acting talent in the film’s casts: Lynn Whitfield graces us with her presence as the beautiful but strict mother of the Batiste family, Roz. Whitfiled, an Emmy award winner (The Josephine Baker Story, in which she held the titular role) and a Louisiana native adds stock to the web of collaborations director Lemmons spreads. You’ve seen here killing it in great television shows including How To Get Away With Murder and Greenleaf.

Louis Batiste as Samuel L. Jackson whom we see on the screen as the loving family man and husband, dutiful doctor and breadwinner but ultimately flawed man. He is perhaps the actor who leaves this film to go on to have the most fame: in recent years he has starred in many block busters films and franchises such as the Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe. It is important to note that he was also one of the producers for this film so he wore the hat of not just actor but producer. Lemmons went on the direct Jackson in another film of hers, Caveman’s Valentine a few years later.

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Samuel L. Jackson and Jurnee Smollett in Eve’s Bayou (1997).IMDB.

Debbi Morgan, a modern television veteran with over twenty television show credits to her name and an impressive stint on All Of My Children from the early 80’s. Here in this film she is the clairvoyant Mozelle Batiste Delacroix, sister to Louis, aunt to Eve and her siblings and widowed three times tragically.

Debbi Morgan in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Last but not least, Diahan Carrol, a living legend in her own right (best known for her breakout role as the titular character of Julia which was the first television show that cast an African American actress in a leading role in the late 60’s) enhances the cast as the town’s voodoo witch, a character who is very much important to the rising action in the latter half of the film.

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Diahann Carroll in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

To go deeper into the collaborations: Amy Vincent is credited as the cinematographer for this film as Terilyn A. Shropshire was the editor. Both women would work with Lemmons again with Shropshire working as editor on both later films: Caveman’s Valentine and Black Nativity and Vincent solely working on Caveman’s Valentine. Vincent who won awards (Emerging Cinematographer Awards for Tuesday Morning Ride and Doctor Hugo) for her work earlier in her career before and after her work on Eve’s Bayou would go on to win more, a Cinematography Award for her efforts for Hustle & Flow from the Sundance Film Festival would mark a crucial point in her career.

Lemmons also enlisted the help of another Louisiana native to score the film: Terrence Blanchard, a world renowned musician and composer in his own right, who works in music inspired by the New Orleans Jazz tradition. (The film was shot on location in Louisiana as well. ) Blanchard who has worked extensively with director Spike Lee (provided ghosted trumpet music for Denzel Washington’s character Mo’ Better Blues but started composing music for Lee’s films as early as Malcolm X) whom some may or may not see as a contemporary to Lemmons.

Blanchard would go on to be hired once again by the director for the piano parts for her later film, Caveman’s Valentine. Not sure if it was intentional or not, but the director hired women and people or color (obviously) prominently to complete this film and that itself could be seen as a way of challenging the “old boys club” of Hollywood where marginalized persons have more obstacles to face in regards of gaining employment the film industry.

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Samuel L. Jackson, Debbi Morgan, and Lynn Whitfield in Eve’s Bayou (1997) IMDB.

In regards to cinematography, there are several motifs throughout the film, one being rain and the storms that come with it. The first major instance is demonstrated the day the client known as Julian comes to Mozelle’s home seeking out her gift of visions as he’s been looking for his wife who left him and desires answers on where she could be. He later becomes her lover and desires to marry her despite her beeching him to listen to her because of her track record of being widowed as she believes she’s cursed.

Another example would be the raging storm on the night Cicely, despite being on lock down with the rest of her siblings (because of Mozelle’s recent vision of a child being killed) left home without a guardian and returned to be disciplined with a stinging slap and a severe warning by her mother. The last example would be the night of the huge argument of their parents which awake nearly every child and serve to be a tipping point to the interaction of Cicely and their father that forever shape their relationship and serve to also be Eve’s motivations to protect her family by eliminating her father. The more the rain intensifies and becomes storms, the more severe the conflict and heartache that plays into the plot.

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Meagan Good and Jurnee Smollett in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Black and white images are important to note in regards to memory. Scenes in black and white are always people in pain, or experiencing some sort of trauma or some great crisis. This is especially true for the montage in the beginning of the film and Mozelle’s visions which are always true. Mirrors are also other motifs and are often present in scenes in pivotal scenes. Mirrors are present in such scenes where characters relay important information crucial to the film’s plot and certain character’s motivations.

One should consider the impact of the mirrors in every scene where Eve interacts with Mozelle. In what way does her aunt gifted with “the sight” use them? We must ask what power does she wield with them. “Mozelle is both having and being claimed by her own voice and gaze and by her own memory and imagination… We are witnessing Mozelle’s past memory as she tells her story to Eve through Eve’s past memory being told to us” (Madison, pg325)

After Uncle Harry’s death and funeral Eve is seen entering a house. The establishing shot of her entering the home is a wide shot, the interior of the house is dark even in the day light hours. The camera cuts to Eve ascending up a flight of stairs with flowers in her hand. When she finds her way to a room upstairs, the shot is first is a close up of her sighing, not happy. Then the camera cuts to the bed in the middle of the room which features an canopy which eerily resembles a death shroud with a person within. Eve pulls apart the material to reveal a disheveled Aunt Mozelle, devastated after Harry’s passing. Eve places flowers on her and speaks to rouse her aunt’s near lifeless body from the bed for “she has clients coming”.

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Debbi Morgan in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

In the next shot, Eve stands with her aunt who is dressed in a robe and Eve makes work to tame her wild hair, they stand in front of an armoire. Mozelle stares at her self in the reflection when she hears a voice, several voices actually. When the camera pans out, three men can be seen in the accompanying mirror, almost as if they stand in the same room. But they don’t because they are dead, “I loved them” Mozelle sofly says and they are gone in the next instant. Ghost. Memories. Young Eve continues with her aunt’s hair and comforts her by saying, “I know. It’s not your fault that they died.”, speaking to Mozelle’s self-diagnosed curse of never being able to be loved by being widowed several times over.

This lays down framework of who Mozelle is in the film: to Eve- a beloved family member, a mentor, a sometimes-confidant. It also gives the audience background info on who Mozelle is: a widow, a woman who has loved and lost. Lastly, it provides some level of audience expectation of the role of lover and husband in her life and that is a perfect setup of what’s to come.

In the next scene when Mozelle is dressed and awaits to receive her clientele who desire her gift of clairvoyance, Eve is seen dusting picture frames of Mozelle’s dead husbands. It is evident that she loved them dearly and still feels wounded by their passings and her inability to stay with them, this also explains his hesitance to consider a future lover when the opportunity presents itself later in the film.

There are many different approaches to narrators and their point of views may it be the Unborn child narrator of Daughters of The Dust or the different narrators that tell us the story in Rashomon. What is evident here is that a child, Eve is the main narrator in this film and even she is biased and not mature, she is her own person yet still lacking in agency. As an audience we must stay mindful of how memory is deceitful, how one observes and remembers the events that happen.

Eve’s Bayou is a coming of age tale but also a story of personal family drama set in the South in the 1960’s before the full effect of the Civil Rights Movement hit the country. The family is an African American family that benefits from it’s middle class standing and also it’s ties to important public figures that shaped the place they live in.

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Debbi Morgan and Jurnee Smollett in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Eve is an significant narrator, as the start and the ending of the film are narrated by an adult female voice, recounting the tale of what happened to her family that one eventful summer. “What would simply be considered narration in the classic Hollywood formula; has tremendous cultural significance when looking at the film through the lens of African tradition. Eve’s role is more than simply a narrator, but is more appropriately described as a griot (gree-oh), which is a West African word meaning storyteller, but also one who shapes the history of her people in her mind and passes it on.” (Beverly, pg 3)

To consider Eve’s role as storyteller, as narrator is to consider a fuller understanding of Indigenous and well as African tribes — of the importance of people in the roles of Eve and to place them as leaders of their communities. Eve is ever more important as it is revealed that she, too, is gifted with the visions as a clairvoyant like her aunt.

In terms of the unreliable narrator/child point of view, Eve is pretty much an effective narrator. It isn’t until she confides in her slightly older sister Cicely about her father’s digressions in the carriage that the chain of events start to change and memory becomes edited and the chain of events start moving.

Near the beginning of the film when she tells Cicely what she caught doing in the safety of their bedroom, she grabs her by the shoulders and recounts the story differently: the two watch their father and Matty stumble into the shed looking for wine joking around instead of kissing and “fooling around” as Eve witnessed. The two girls stand as an audience, flies on the wall even and Cicely convinces the younger girl, this is what truly happened, keeping their father on a pedestal.

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Meagan Good and Jurnee Smollett in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Eve seems convinced enough to fool her sister but the seed of distrust in her father is planted and it shows in her innocent questioning of his work as he sees many female patients and works many long hours. Cicely rears her head as confidant and sister to Eve later as she recounts her father forcibly kissing her and then striking her when she resisted, drunk and fresh off a huge argument with their mother one night.

Angered that their precious father would do such a thing to her beloved sister, Eve tells her “I’ll kill him! I’ll kill him for hurting you!” and this influences her actions which include hinting to Matty’s husband that she may not be faithful in the marketplace to visiting and hiring the voodoo witch to kill her father.

One must consider the significance of such a film like Eve’s Bayou, especially as an indie film. A film written and directed by a black woman that starred an all black cast that ignores the white gaze completely: in it’s script, its casting, its location. Eve’s Bayou comes only six years after the first feature film directed by an African American woman was distributed theatrically in the United States. Kathleen Collins’ Losing Ground (1982) a nearly forgotten gem, is credited as the first feature length directed by an African American woman. But that might not be entirely true since Kino Lorber is in the process of restoring Motherhood (1925) a silent film directed by Lita Lawrence.

Lemmons was set on an all-black cast, one that catered to the story of her film. To her surprise and many others, it was a crossover hit with audiences, many which were fifty percent White which acknowledged the appeal of the film as did many critics. “It was the most successful independent film at the US box office during the year of its release, with takings of $15 million from an investment of less than $5 million. It became one of the few films directed by a black woman to achieve critical and financial success without compromising its ethnic integrity” (Ellison, pg2)

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Mary Ellison, “Echoes of Africa in ‘To Sleep with Anger” and “Eve’s Bayou”

One can be reminded that this is not a one-time thing, or a flunk if we turn our eyes to Barry Jenkins‘ Moonlight, the indie winner of recent years which also negates the white gaze with an all black cast and a story centering on the Black family. Moonlight has grossed over eight million dollars and currently heads to award season as a favorite of critics across the board. Lastly, as a film Moonlight features an emphasis on cinematography (special colored sequences as opposed to the black and white ones in this film) that, like Eve’s Bayou serves the film well and helps capture the essence of the story.

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In the end, not every loose end in the narrative is caught and nicely tied for the viewers: there are still questions to answer. We have no clear way of knowing if the voodoo magic actually worked or if it was indeed the seeds of doubt that Eve planted in Matty’s husband’s head hinting at his wife’s faithfulness by chance one day in the marketplace.

The narrative never actually clarifies this and we are left to consider that perhaps it was in the hands of forces beyond our own control: that perhaps magic or voodoo what whatever mystic powers were at play.

In truth, the ambiguous ending of the film must be addressed as well: Eve confronts her sister for the truth of what what really happened between her sister and her father after finding a letter written by him to Mozelle that spoke of her innocence in the matter and his regret in physically striking her so which led to her great depression.

Cicely stands by her claim that she’s telling the truth and when Eve takes her hands to use her gift of sight only to see that her older sister was deeply hurt but not as to who was at fault and to blame. The narrative again, leaves no nicely presented solution on which version of the kiss was the true one but leaves it to the audience to figure out. In the end Eve and Cicely float their father’s letter down the waters of the bayou and leave, holding hands. The film that once began, narrated, in a grown woman’s voice finally ends in the same woman’s voice.

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Meagan Good and Jurnee Smollett in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

“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“ (Mask)

As evident by its success and it’s half White audience goers who bought tickets, this film transcends race by placing you in front of a story of a doomed family, of a tragedy that begets more tragedy and of memories of children from their childhood and what they can never get back.

There is death, physical death but also symbolically there is death of childhood, of innocence, of family structure which nearly everyone and anyone, regardless of race, gender, age or ethnicity can relate to on some level — great or small which helps make this film a fantastic form of storytelling in the avenue of film making.

Carrie McClain is a Californian native who navigates the world as writer, editor, and media scholar who firmly believes that we can and we should critique the media we consume. She once aided Cindi Mayweather in avoiding capture. See more of her on Twitter and on https://carriemcclain.carrd.co/

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⭐️ Writer, Editor & Media Scholar with an affinity for red lipstick living in California. Writes about literature, art, cinema & amazing women. ⭐️

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