Eve’s Bayou falls in line with the long tradition of adult stories told from a child’s point of view. Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), the ten-year-old daughter of Louis and Roz Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson and Lynn Whitfield, respectively), declares that she killed her father, a wealthy doctor who is widely respected in the small Creole-American community where they live. He also happens to be a notorious philanderer and the film kicks off with Eve discovering one of her father’s affairs, though he quickly tries to play it off as a misunderstanding. The summer only gets more tumultuous and strained as Louis and Roz’s marriage implodes, Eve’s sister’s Cisely (Meagan Good) transitions into puberty and rebelliousness, and Louis’ infidelity becomes the worst-kept secret in town.
While Eve’s Bayou focuses on serious, adult matters, it is still told through a child’s eyes and we as an audience are kept at a certain distance from the events. We only get fragments of some of the more troubling scenes, as if an adult is remembering bits and pieces of a past traumatic event. Though the film’s more serious events could traumatize anyone, no matter what age, there is also an air of nostalgia that permeates the picture. There are many scenes of the bustling community that are filmed with warm light by cinematographer Amy Vincent but also striking, visually harsh scenes that take place in the dark. The evocative music of Terence Blanchard dips into New Orleans jazz but can turn on a dime to discordant and experimental when the film calls for it.
There is also a certain amount of magical realism that is reminiscent of Toni Morrison’s works, which comes through naturally through the meshing of these aforementioned elements. The adult that Eve is closest to besides her father is her Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), who informs her that both she and Eve possess the family gift of “second sight.” Yet Mozelle’s gift is Cassandra-like in effect- she may be able to portend bad omens but she does not have the power to stop them. Her helplessness is a harsh reminder for Eve that adults are often just as powerless as children when events are out of control and that she must grow up fast in order to navigate the increasingly chaotic world around her.
Though the artistic merits of the cinematography and the music are considerable, the film’s greatest strength is Kasi Lemmons’ storytelling and her writing. The screenplay for Eve’s Bayou is expansive in the emotional scope of the story that she tells yet narrow in that she is mainly concerned with one family and often limits her story to just a few locations, the most prominent of which is the Batiste’s large, beautiful mansion, which manages to be a whole world in and of itself, but also claustrophobic when it needs to be. It manages to tell a rich story with complex dynamics despite being told through a child’s point of view. Her screenplay relies heavily on Jurnee Smollett, who was the same age as her character. She must not only deliver large amounts of exposition but also be the driving force for much of the action. It is her curiosity that makes the problems of the Batiste household come to light. The fact that Smollett could carry the weight of the story while being a very believable, complex child is a testament to her great talent. It is no surprise that she is still a very talented actor and charismatic screen presence as recent roles in Birds of Prey and Lovecraft Country have shown.
That Eve’s Bayou was Kasi Lemmons’ debut film is a stunning feat that few filmmakers, even the most renowned ones, have accomplished. Though it tells an original story written by Lemmons herself, Eve’s Bayou is a rich family drama that calls to mind Ingmar Bergman, yet there is also a flair for the dramatic and the unreliability of narratives that is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa. Perhaps the most direct influence on Eve’s Bayou is Julie Dash’s magical Daughters of the Dust, which is set in the Gullah community, not too far from Louisiana, where Eve’s Bayou is set.
Many Black-directed films have dealt with the legacy of White hegemony in meaningful and complex ways. In fact, non-Black audiences often expect that a Black film confront this topic in one way or another. While it is important that evils such as slavery and racism be explored in art, this tendency can also lead to the long rash of films that mainly depict trauma, often with the broadest of strokes. Eve’s Bayou, while not free from tragedy, is also a celebration of Black life. Setting the film in a community without White judgment or expectation frees the film to explore complex family dynamics and tell a story that could resonate with anyone who has grown up in a family that harbors secrets while putting on a facade.