Monday, July 11, 2016

To "Eve's Bayou"


After a certain age, magic becomes a rare thing to experience in films.  Sure, I can appreciate all the gorgeous effects work that goes into CGI creatures and Harry Potter's wizard duels, but I know that it's all pretend.  However, for the space of 109 minutes, I believed that characters in "Eve's Bayou" could see the future and commune with the past.  And I believed this wholeheartedly.

The year is 1962, and we're introduced to the world of Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), a willful ten-year-old girl.  She is the daughter of a doctor, Louis (Sameul L. Jackson), and the lovely Roz (Lynn Whitfield), with a younger brother, Poe (Jake Smollett), and older sister, Cisely (Meagan Good).  They live in a thriving African-American community in Louisiana, where the family is well regarded, particularly Louis, whose house calls are sometimes used as cover to conduct clandestine affairs.  Eve is particularly close with her Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), who tells fortunes and believes that she's cursed, having been widowed multiple times.  One night, during a party, Eve catches Louis with another woman, Matty Mereaux (Lisa Nicole Carson), an event that will eventually lead to Eve killing her father.

Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons, one of the few female African-American directors who has ever had much of a career, this is Southern Gothic at its finest, delivering wonderfully nuanced character portraits and tons of cinematic atmosphere.  Filtered through the memories and the child's perception of Eve, the film hums with unseen forces.  The visions and warnings delivered by Mozelle and the witchy voodoo woman Elzora (Diahann Carroll) are treated with utmost seriousness.  Some of the most arresting scenes involve Mozelle telling Eve about her husbands, who we glimpse in mirrors at times, appearing as casually as they do in Mozelle's picture frames.  Debbi Morgan is absolutely riveting, delivering long, unhurried monologues about her life and tragedies.  When she looks into the future, she sees it in harsh, impressionistic montages of black and white images. Details, however, can be elusive.

It's one of these visions that results in the children being confined to their home for a period of time, under the watchful eye of their mother.  Tensions rise, especially between Cisely, who becomes rebellious and defiant as most fourteen year-olds do, and Roz, who is clearly redirecting her insecurity about her marriage.  It's a familiar dynamic that plays out, but oh so wonderfully, setting the stage for the bigger upheavals to come.  The film is full of relationships between women, some contentious, some loving, and mostly both at once.  Ethel Ayler appears briefly, but memorably as the Batiste family's Gran Mere, who speaks only in French and hints at past clashes that have gone on in the family since long before Eve was born.  It's a lot of fun simply watching all these personalities interact and play off each other.

Samuel L. Jackson is the film's MVP, however.  This is one of the most nuanced, interesting roles he's ever played, a loving father and charismatic figure who Eve adores.  There is no question that he cares deeply for his children.  However, his flaws are deep and troubling, so much so that Eve is given real cause to question her father's love.  Jackson is especially good in the tender moments, where Louis tries to assuage his daughters' fears while ignoring the obvious impact of his infidelities on the family.  The ending is wonderfully ambiguous because the character remains so difficult to pin down.  Is he kind of man to lie, to misremember, or to tell the truth about a terrible event?  Not even magic can divine that, though it can enforce terrible consequences.

I've been watching a lot of African American cinema lately, much of it dealing with historical struggles against racism, both direct and systemic, external and internal.  "Eve's Bayou" is the only one of them that feels like it's not part of this legacy.  There are no white characters, and no acknowledgement of anyone and anywhere beyond Eve's world of familiar neighbors and friends.  Rather, it explores a rich, deep Creole culture that stems from a history of slavery, but is also deeply tied to family, community, and spirituality.  And it does it on its own terms, without comparison or reference to anything else.  The result is that this is a different kind of African American story from a place and a point of view that I haven't seen before in cinema.  And finding something like this is always a special experience.

Maybe that's why the troubles of Eve and her family come across as so striking and so genuine.  Maybe that's why this is the first film I've seen in so long, that really got me to care about its beautiful, imperfect characters.

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