2016 Film Essays

The Feminine Grotesque #9: Learning How to Live – On ‘Eve’s Bayou’

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There are moments that can split our lives into neat befores and afters, moments that change us so irrevocably that we think, move, need, breathe and live like never before. I had many tragedies unfurl starting in March of last year (including a suicide attempt) that wrecked me so completely that I burned down my life, leaving Chicago with an uneasy sense of myself. By the end of last summer, when I would look in the mirror, I knew that I was a different person than who I began the year as. I also knew that I would never be that woman again.

When I wasn’t having a dissociative episode so terrible that I believed I was dead and living my own version of hell, I was reckoning with the deepest depression I have ever experienced. Part of the summer was spent caring for my grandmother in Iberia Parish, Louisiana after her stroke. This homecoming was, to put it mildly, toxic. At every turn, I was reminded of how little I share with my deeply religious maternal family and the brother I am estranged from. I couldn’t see myself in their faces, or hear myself in the lilt of their voices, which sometimes fluttered into beautiful Creole, or see recognition in their movements. Even New Orleans, a city I consider a second home, felt foreign to me. I was a stranger in a land I once called home, and in a body that didn’t feel like my own. It is a testament to a strength I didn’t know I had that I am alive today… that I didn’t, after many attempts, give into that bitter pull to commit suicide. The memories of this period in my life embolden me to continue going forward. But memory can heal and hurt in equal measure. This truth is the undercurrent of Eve’s Bayou, the powerful 1997 film by writer/director Kasi Lemmons.

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I have always loved the film, feeling a special bond with it because of how it brings up the imagery and texture I associate with southern Louisiana: black bodies… some tawny, some dark, some golden in hue. The careful hum of the bayou. The overbearing heat of the noonday Louisiana sun. But watching a film print of the director’s cut at Ebertfest a little over a week ago (with Lemmons actually in the audience) was a revelation to me. I kept seeing myself and my family in unexpected places. It was holding up a mirror to a part of myself that I sometimes wish to forget.

The film opens with striking black and white imagery less interested in communicating plot dynamics than mood. It looks like something out of a dream. Voice over from the adult version of the lead character, Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), sets the stage for the story of familial burdens, painful adolescence and love. “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…” We quickly learn that the image of the family is not quite what it seems. Besides Eve, there is her older sister Cisely (Meagan Good) who is loyal to her father and just entering puberty. There’s also her younger brother Poe (Jake Smollett). Her parents, Roz (Lynn Whitfield) and Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), at first glance seem like the picture of southern black elegance, but their marriage is incredibly strained by the husband’s infidelity, an open secret in the close-knit black community named after his French aristocrat ancestor.

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When I was younger, it was Eve’s story I was always drawn to; watching the way her loyalty pivoted between her parents, the strong yet complicated relationship she has with her sister and the ways she’s realizing the truth can often fail us. When Eve accidently sees her father having sex with Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson), her life is split in two. The film chronicles the ways Louis’ infidelity rewrites the relationships of his family and ultimately leads to his downfall. Eve blames herself for his death by invoking the help of local witch, Elzora (played with power and humor by the great Diahann Carroll). In the light of adulthood, I believe that Louis’ death would happen eventually. He was too flagrant of a cheater in the community. It was only a matter of time before someone’s husband caught up to him.

Eve’s Bayou is one of the most emotionally realized films I’ve ever seen with a profound understanding of mood. It sways from tender-hearted to bitter to melancholy to passionate, much in the way life can. Jurnee Smollett’s performance as Eve is one of the best child performances ever put to film.

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As much as I love Eve and her central narrative that shapes the film, she isn’t who I profoundly saw myself in watching the film last week for the first time in years. It was her aunt, Mozelle Batiste (Debbi Morgan), that came across as so tangible to be I felt, that if I looked over to the seat next to me, I wouldn’t be surprised to see her there.

Rewatching the film, Mozelle has found her way into my canon of madwomen. Mozelle has watched all the men she’s fallen in love with (and married) die under strange and sometimes horrifying circumstances. She believes herself to be cursed. She has the ability to know people’s past, present and future with just a glance. She’s not a witch like Elzora but she’s a witch all the same. She’s beautiful and complicated and dynamic in ways that no other character is in the film. She reminds me of the great spinster aunt figures that popped up a lot in the films of classic Hollywood but seem nonexistent today. She has no children of her own (and can’t) but acts as a comforting, no-bullshit second mother to Eve and Cisely. Watching Mozelle simply walk and talk with her sister-in-law, Roz capture the specific intimacy between black female friends that I ache to see more of in pop culture. While she’s only a supporting character, albeit a major one, there is an extended sequence involving the death of one of her husbands that provides Eves Bayou with its most devastating moment.

The scene occurs just shy of the midpoint after the children are forbidden to leave the home, thanks to a vision from Mozelle that portends a death. Eve has just gone off on her mother, proudly cursing and mentioning her father’s infidelities. Lynn Whitfield’s performance of Roz is a delicate tightrope. She looks like she walked off the set of an MGM movie in the 1940s (well, if MGM would have given a black woman like her a starring role. Hell, Hollywood of the 1990s didn’t know what to do with her). She’s beautiful in a classic way. But there is a sense that she could unravel if pushed hard enough. Eve’s thoughtless comments definitely caused a few seams to show. Mozelle takes Eve upstairs at first to chastise her: “Is that your idea of being a good daughter?” The scene shifts when Eve admits to seeing her father with Matty. “If you get careless again with your mama’s feelings, I swear I’ll do you harm,” Mozelle says. Smoking a cigarette and cradling Eve, Mozelle tells a story about how an affair with Hosea (Marcus Lyle Brown) helped her realize that husband Maynard (Leonard L. Thomas) loved her most of all.

“When I was with Hosea it was like my whole body was burning,” Mozelle whispers as her eyes drift to some unseeable horizon. One night, Hosea appears on her doorstep wanting her to leave Maynard, who, up until that point, never said if he knew about the affair. Mozelle jumps up from the couch, the memory of this incident charging the entire room with energy. Mozelle repeats the words Maynard said to Hosea on that fateful night, the rumble of his voice below hers, “I don’t care who you are, sir. If you don’t leave this house at once, I will hurt you.” It was a tone Mozelle had never heard in her husband’s voice before. Mozelle turns to the grand mirror behind her, in which we can see the memory play out: Hosea with his gun pointed at Maynard, who walks right up the barrel of the gun. Memory and reality, the past and the present, love and tragedy… all fold into each other. It takes that very moment for Mozelle to realize how much she loved Maynard. The tension builds and builds. Eve comes to the mirror, watching the past unfold. Then Mozelle literally walks into her memory, and we see the devastating consequence of Mozelle’s affair. “I stood by my husband and looked at my lover, this man who lit this great fire inside of me and said, ‘please leave our house. I never want to see you again.’” This gives Hosea the bravery and steadiness to shoot Maynard dead center. In watching the scene, it’s a tragedy that Lemmons hasn’t done more work as a filmmaker.

More than anything else, Eve’s Bayou is like a living poem, deftly exploring the way memory can both comfort and haunt us, long after the actual wounds of our tragedies heal.

Angelica Jade Bastién is a writer based in Chicago. She has been published by The Atlantic, Bright Wall/Dark Room, Movie Mezzanine and writes regularly for Vulture. You can find her on Twitter @angelicabastien and her website madwomenandmuses.com.

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