By Andrea Thompson
Perception is everything, and “Eve's Bayou” is very aware of how the stories we tell our ourselves shape, and sometimes destroy, our lives. It seemed fitting that the first film I watched for Black History Month was also a delicately beautiful exploration of personal history.
It's no accident that many of the reviews and think pieces about “Eve's Bayou” also begin with the film's opening lines. They're thoughtful, insightful, and...startling, to say the least. “Memory is the selection of images, some elusive, other printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.”
How and why would such a thing occur? It first seems unlikely, or even unthinkable, as such developments often do. In their prosperous 1960s Louisiana Creole community, Eve's family stands out, in all the right ways. Her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) is a prominent, respected doctor, with a beautiful, loving wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield). Eve also has two other siblings, the teenage Cisely (Meagan Good), who is clearly her father's favored child, and a younger brother, Poe (Jake Smollett).
But the facade comes crashing down when Eve accidentally witnesses her father having sex with another woman. At first, it seems as if Louis is able to smooth things over, but things deteriorate as Eve discovers more evidence of Louis's constant unfaithfulness. Cisely refuses to believe any of it, leading to more conflict between the sisters and Cisely and Roz. This conflict becomes less surprising as we learn more about both mother and daughter. 14-year-old Cisely is eager to grow up and embrace her womanhood, and she is her elegant mother in miniature. She idolizes her father the way Roz once did.
“When I first met Louis, I watched him set a boy's leg who had fallen out of a tree,” Roz muses. And I said to myself, here's a man who can fix things. He's a healer, he'll take care of me. So I leave my family, and I moved to this swamp, and I find out he's just a man.”
With such turbulence at home, Eve natually searches for a safe haven, which she finds with her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan). Mozelle has the gift of sight, which allows her to see everyone's future but her own, with all three of the men she loved having died. Her abilities are unquestionably real, magic being a regular part of the film's unique setting. Not all of it is benevolent, and it is to the less benevolent forces that Eve turns to after Cisely reveals that Louis tried to molest her one night, deeply traumatizing her. Eve then turns to a local witch to put a fatal curse on her father, which she soon regrets and tries to undo. Less easy to reverse are the hints she drops to the husband of the woman Louis is seeing.
Even in the midst of a vibrant time for black cinema, “Eve's Bayou” stands out for its compassion, and the riveting performances that make the stories of people's lives, in which love, sex, violence, and death are constantly interwoven, far more than sheer melodrama. Debbi Morgan is the film's standout, with Mozelle revealing herself to be as passionate as she is vulnerable, particularly when a new man brings love into her life, and she fears that their marriage would be the death of him. Writer-director Kasi Lemmons has become primarily known for her work as an actress, and watching her feature film debut, it feels like a loss. Lemmons imbues her story with a strong sense of Southern Gothic, effortlessly fusing the town's history, which claimed to be founded by a freed slave named Eve and the man who freed her, to the family at the film's center, who are their descendants.
The real tragedy of “Eve's Bayou” are Eve's realizations that the supposedly stalwart adults around her are just as frail and human as she is, especially her father, who has a different story about what happened between him and Cisely. He is no villain, merely a man with a deep need to be a hero, and to be seen as a hero to those around him, which ultimately proves his undoing. When our protectors, our trust, and even our memories, prove so unreliable, perhaps the only thing we can truly rely on is love, even if our loved ones are just as flawed and unsure as we are. The film ends with Cisely and Eve realizing that they may never truly know what happened, but they can nevertheless always find a kind of peace in the loving bond they share.