Wednesday, March 9, 2011

EVE'S BAYOU 1997

"Memory is a selection of images. Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain."
One need look no further for proof of the elemental irrelevance of the Academy Awards® than "Eve's Bayou," a critically-lauded motion picture hailed by many as one of the best films of 1997, yet recipient of nary a nomination.  America at the time was in the throes of "Titanic" fever, but even the excuse of the nation's brains being reduced to mush by that film's omnipresent theme song doesn't fully explain why this gem of a film was overlooked.
My absolute favorite image from the film
A touchingly poignant coming-of-age story, "Eve's Bayou" is a look at the adult world as seen through the eyes of a 10 year-old girl growing up in 1962 Louisiana. Rendered in rich period detail, it's populated with characters and language so true-to-life that you fairly gasp in recognition at seeing some long-forgotten personal memory recalled onscreen. My favorite thing about "Eve's Bayou" is how it so artfully (and cinematically) employs magic-realism to embrace the mystical & spiritual traditions of Creole Louisiana while giving us a glimpse into a kind of African-American family life all-too-rarely depicted onsceen.
A veritable symphony of virtuoso performances, "Eve's Bayou" certainly boasts one of the most talented (and sadly under-utilized) cast of actors in Hollywood.
First time film director Kasi Lemmons (who is also the screenwriter) provides her cast with the kind of substantive, dimensional roles that are extremely rare for African-American actors. Case in point: the film's biggest star, Samuel L. Jackson, is also the film's producer. Meaning that he had to essentially become his own employer in order to be offered something beside the usual "professional badass" role that has become his trademark. Take a look at some of the glowingly beautiful, expressive, and dynamic faces below and then ask why most remain unknown or are rarely visible on movie screens.
Samuel L. Jackson as Louis Batiste
Lynn Whitfield  as Roz Batiste
Debbi Morgan  as  Mozelle Batiste Delacroix
Jurnee Smollett  as Eve Batiste
Meagan Good  as  Cisley Batiste
Diahann Carroll as Elzora the Fortune Teller 
Vondie Curtis-Hall as Julian Grayraven
Roger Guenveur Smith as Lenny Mereaux
Branford Marsalis as Harry
"Eve's Bayou" tells the story of the Batiste family of Louisiana. The Batistes are a wealthy and educated southern family- landowners and descendants of the woman for whom the town, Eve's Bayou, was named. The father, Louis Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson), is the dapper local physician with a roving eye; his wife, Roz (Lynn Whitfield) is the town beauty. Their 3 children: Cisley (Meagan Good), Eve (Jurnee Smollett), and Poe (Jake Smollett), ages 14, 10, and 9, respectively, are loving, well-mannered, but precocious kids. (Modern parents take note: the family doesn't appear to own a television, so the kids spend a good deal of their playtime reading or acting out scenes from Shakespeare). The film is about  one hot summer in 1962 when the picture-perfect facade of this respected family slowly starts to crack under the weight of several life-altering secrets.
Whispers and Secrets

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
As a fan of film and an African-American male, one of the biggest frustrations I have with the medium I love so much is that when I want to see a film about African-American life (of which there are precious few), far too often I have to sit through films (well-meaning, all) telling me about how hard it is to be black. Well, that just isn't my experience. There is nothing intrinsically hard about being black. In fact it's quite wonderful. It's racism that's hard, but too many filmmakers fail to realize that to make films about racism isn't the same as making films about African-American life.  Based on the image presented of  the black experience as reflected in Hollywood films, I think it would come as a surprise to many people to learn that most of us African-Americans do not link our identities to, nor define ourselves by, the racism that surrounds us. It's just one aspect of our multifaceted experience in the world.
What is most pleasing to me about "Eve's Bayou" is that, in being a film authentically about real African-American life (focusing as it does on family, love, loss, betrayal, pain, and growth), it does what every good film does, regardless of the race or sex of its protagonists; it illuminates something universal about what we all share in struggling with what is called the human condition.
Family rituals
Childhood
Familial bonds
PERFORMANCES:
Jurnee Smollett as Eve, the girl from whose perspective the entire film is told, gives an amazingly sensitive performance for one so young. Indeed every actor in the film is quite remarkable and several give the best performances of their careers (Lynn Whitfield). But Debbi Morgan as aunt Mozell, Eve's no-nonsense, psychic aunt with the tragic history,  gives one of the finest performances by an actress in a film EVER. And that's not hyperbole. As the mystical, poetic voice of the film, she achieves tiny moments of greatness.
Mozelle, who fears herself cursed, mourns her three deceased husbands


THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
A child's world is a world in which the real and the magical unquestioningly coexist. Not a lot makes sense, but everything seems possible. The moment one learns that the world of adults is no less mysterious, yet infinitely more painful and prone to disappointment and consequence, is the moment of maturity. "Eve's Bayou" does a marvelous job of giving us a child's-eye-view of the mysteries of life.
"Life is filled with goodbyes, Eve. A million goodbyes. And it hurts every time."

THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
There's no getting past the fact that much of "Eve's Bayou" resonates so deeply with me because it recalls so much of my own upbringing. I was 5 years old in 1962. Like Eve, I had a dashingly handsome father who was philanderer; and, as with all children, I had a mother I believed to be, " The most beautiful woman in the world." Like the Batistes, I was raised to address my elders as Mr. & Mrs., and to respond to questions with "Yes, ma'am" or "No, sir."  I remember times with nosy grandmothers and bossy older sisters, and the loving moments we shared that were exclusively ours.  I recall what it felt like to be awakened at night by parents arguing in the next room. I know about siblings and whispered secrets, and the deep ties of love between us that feel so strong yet sometimes make no sense.
 How much of remembering is as it really was, and how much is as we wished it to be?


Some sectors of society see images of their lives reflected from movie screens with regularity. That hasn't been the case for me, nor, I would venture to say, for a great many African-Americans. The revelation of "Eve's Bayou" is how it managed to put so many of my memories on the screen in such a sweetly personal way, that a simple story about the pain of growing up becomes an elegiac contemplation on the subjective quality of perception and the vacillating nature of memory itself.
"All I know is most people's lives are a great disappointment to them, and no one leaves this earth without feeling terrible pain. If there is no divine explanation at the end of it all...that's sad."
                                                                                                                                        

6 comments:

  1. Thank you! Thank you!! Thank you!!! Thank you for remembering this fantastic film, Eve's Bayou, and for writing about it after all this time. Almost as memorable as the film itself was its omission from any Oscar categories. When that happened, I was speechless, and am still smarting from it. I can only imagine what the cast and crew of this timeless film have been through. That was the year that any trust I had in "The Academy" vanished into thin air and has never returned. In regards to the Academy vis-a-vis Eve's Bayou, the film, "I Spit on Your Grave" comes to mind.

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  2. Hi Marta
    Thank YOU for sharing your thoughts on this beautiful, yet overlooked film. There is an artistry and purity of craft on display here that I know transcends the winning of mere "awards"...I mean, to me, the movie is poetry; but I too, find it a disgrace that a film of such beauty was COMPLETELY overlooked by the Academy. Every film can't be nominated, but the omission of what I consider to be one of te best American films of that year...well, it makes absolutely no sense! Your outrage is appropriate (and it made me laugh in accordance)! Nice to hear from another fan of the film.

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  3. This movie was absolutely astounding. It will touch my heart forever.

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    1. I obviously concur! Each time I watch it I find myself drawn into how richly the characters, emotions, and era are evoked. It plays on a very mystical level...almost in the magical/scary way the world can appear to a child. One of my favorite films and it always makes me cry. Thanks for reading my blog and commenting!

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  4. I loved this movie! I couldnt blink when I watched it and it is one of my most prized movie out of my whole collection. I was only 19 at the time of its release and now my daughter loves it too(the tv version)! I am still so lost to how it was overlooked by the Academy and Oscars.....I guess life just isn't fair.

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    1. That's so beautiful to think that two generations of family have fallen in love with this beautiful film! I love how you describe your teen experience of watching it..."I couldn't blink."
      Award recognition not withstanding, with all the TV airings of this film, "Eve's Bayou" is gradually growing into a much-beloved classic. And I think it's about time. Everyone I turn onto this film falls in love with it and are stunned it wasn't an Oscar contender.
      I so appreciate your sharing your memories of this film and taking the time to comment!

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