1997, R, 107 min. Directed by Kasi Lemmons. Starring Lynn Whitfield, Samuel L. Jackson, Jurnee Smollett, Debbi Morgan, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Meagan Good.
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Nov. 14, 1997
One startling line, spoken in the opening minute by a calm-voiced young female narrator, deeply sets the story's hook: “The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.” With her audience's full attention assured, first-time director Kasi Lemmons then proceeds to unravel a spellbinding, powerfully seductive tale that blends Southern Gothic magical realism and disturbing family drama with the flair of a born storytelling genius. Lemmons' self-penned script concerns a family of slaves' descendants who by the 1960s have risen to middle-class prominence in a small Louisiana town called Eve's Bayou. The father, Louis Batiste (Jackson) is a complex character, loving and responsible as a parent and provider, but also a shameless philanderer whose nightly “house calls” to local women are an open secret around town. Louis' flagrant tomcatting steadily undercuts his marriage to beautiful, cultured Roz (Whitfield) and adds an uneasy layer of psychodrama to his relationships with daughters Cisely (Morgan) and Eve (Smollett). Cisely, a rebellious adolescent with a big-time Electra Complex, resolves to monopolize daddy's cheating heart with feminine wiles while her psychically gifted younger sibling concludes that black magic, not sweetness, is required to change his ways. Like Tennessee Williams, whose better works have already been cited as inspiration for this film, Lemmons is able to tap the romantic mystique of the old South while largely skirting the inherent dangers of camp and cliché. For all the Spanish moss, hoodoo-voodoo, and ambient female hysteria in Eve's Bayou, there's also a remarkable amount of deep psychological truth here about the dark complexities of relationships between men and women, and between parents and children. The acting is strong across the board, with Jackson especially impressive as a man of infinite contradictions, many of which remain unresolved until the end. Smollett, a remarkable young actress with all of Anna Paquin's native talent and less of her annoying showiness, is equally terrific as Eve. But the most impressive showing is by Lemmons. A modestly successful actress previously best known for playing Jodie Foster's roommate in The Silence of the Lambs, nothing in her career to date has hinted at the masterful and fully mature directorial talent she displays in this fresh, original first film. In a movie year already highlighted by the emergence of bold new talents like Neil LaBute and Paul Thomas Anderson, Kasi Lemmons is further cause for celebration.