Kasi Lemmons’ “Eve’s Bayou” is an intensely emotional family drama that mixes elements of Southern Gothic with the kinds of characters and tensions that prevail in the plays of Tennessee Williams and other Southern writers. Anchored by a strong cast, including Samuel L. Jackson (also credited as a producer), Lynn Whitfield and Diahann Carroll, this talented debut by a black female writer-director is a well-made, if also old-fashioned, multi-generational drama. With sensitive handling, Trimark release, set for late-October openings, can travel well beyond the specialized and black markets to encompass broader audiences, likely to be touched by the particular as well as the more universal elements of the story.
The Batiste clan is headed by the patriarchal Louis (Jackson), a suave, charming doctor who’s respected and admired by his family and community. Louis is known for his ability “to fix things,” which includes everything but his own family’s problems. Though married to the beautiful, proud and gracious Roz (Whitfield), he is unable to control his weakness for attractive women, who are often his patients.
In an early sequence, Louis is engaged in an amorous escapade with the very alluring and very married Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson) in a barn, not realizing that he’s being observed by his youngest daughter, Eve (Jurnee Smollett), who is there by accident. Shattered by the experience, little Eve is reassured by her father that he still loves her mom. Nonetheless, Eve can’t forget the traumatic incident and later that night shares her secret with her older sister, Cisely (Meagan Good).
This segment sets the moral tone of the yarn, which is seen from the perspective a perceptive youngster. Highlighting the loss of innocence by a naive girl, whose illusions of family unity and loyalty are forever changed, these scenes also show how easily children are lied to and manipulated by individuals whom they trust. In this case, it’s not only Louis but also Cisely who lies, dismissing Eve’s report and fabricating another scenario for their dad’s adulterous behavior. Later information about the complex relationship between Louis and Cisely adds resonance to the earlier episodes.
Coming-of-age saga begins with Eve’s v.o. narration: “Memory is a selection of images. Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.” It is to the director’s credit that, though Louis’ death is known from the start, it’s still shocking to observe the specific circumstances in which he is killed and the effects of his demise on the family.
Lemmons appears to be well versed in the traditions of the South, blending the Gothic and the primal, the bizarre voodoo rituals and the celebrated Southern gentility into a multilayered narrative that captures in detail the strains upon one black family — a family that is not concerned with oppression, racial discrimination or urban violence. Significantly, there are no white characters in the story; all the women Louis fools around with are black.
Cast against type, Jackson reveals a suave, romantic side to his versatile talent, which so far has been limited mostly to actioners and pulp-fiction fare. The riveting female characters are deftly etched by fine actresses. Highest marks go to young Smollett as Eve, a precocious girl who pries open her family’s secrets and then tries to save its members from the consequences. Whitfield is compelling as the urbane, proud wife-mother who seems to “have it all,” except her hubby’s fidelity. The sexy Debbi Morgan excels as the superstitious and intuitively impulsive Mozelle, a young widow whose three husbands never survived her affections.
Carroll, long absent from the bigscreen, brings color and authority to the role of Elzora, the voodoo visionary whom Eve consults in her struggle to save her family. Vondie Curtis Hall (Lemmons’ husband) is well cast as Mozelle’s new lover, a man willing to risk the curse that destroyed all the men she married.
Technical credits are polished: The smoothly assured mise-en-scene and authentic look (pic was shot on location by the gifted Amy Vincent) seldom indicate that “Eve’s Bayou” is a first directorial effort.