There wasn’t a lot I knew about Eve’s Bayou going into it, other than that it was Roger Ebert’s favorite film of 1997. For a long time, this seemed a bit odd, since it’s been a fairly obscure little movie for most of its existence, though its status as a major studio film directed by a Black woman has made it more and more of a vital rarety over the years. It’s another movie that doesn’t quite fit into the horror genre, but also is just as hard to pin to any other genre. It has the feel of a straightforward family drama, but by throwing in elements like voodoo and predestined murder it has a slightly sinister edge to it. So in that regard, it’s easy to see why it was such a hard movie for people (other than Roger Ebert) to make sense of at the time, but remains a hauntingly assured debut from Kasi Lemmons.
Eve’s Bayou begins with the voice-over narration pronouncing: “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.” After some black and white visuals of trees, swamps, and adultery, we meet the voice behind this narration, Eve Batiste (played by Jurnee Smollett). She lives on a vast estate with her wealthy family in a Creole-American community in Louisiana where her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson), is a respected doctor. One night at a party, Eve walks in on Louis having sex in a back room with a family friend, though Louis explains to Eve that she needn’t worry about what she saw.
Eve’s mother Roz (Lynn Whitfield) at first seems oblivious to Louis’s philandering, though it becomes more clear over the course of the film that it’s a point of contention in the family. Similarly, Eve’s aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) gives her some guidance on how to handle her father’s secrets, while also having a bit of a spiritual connection with Eve, as Mozelle is a fortune-teller who’s fascinated by Eve’s dreams that seem to be premonitions. Eve starts acting out due to her father’s cheating, which pushes her over the edge when he makes an unseemly pass towards Eve’s sister, which leads her to seek out another fortune teller, who she asks what the best way to kill someone with voodoo is. We eventually learn that what happened between Louis and his other daughter was a misunderstanding, but by then, it’s too late.
It took me a little while to get on this movie’s wavelength, just because it feels so out-of-place with the irony-clad ’90s. Tennessee Williams feels like an overt influence on this film’s southern gothic vibe, but also on the performances and tone as well. There’s a certain degree of earnestness to these actors’ performances that can at times feel a little stagey, but at the same time, the film doesn’t feel overwrought or anything. It pairs these moments of heated passion with these haunting images of salty swamps and swaying cypress trees that make the film both meditative and old-fashioned in a way that sticks with you.
While I enjoyed Eve’s Bayou quite a bit, I’m having a hard time thinking of much else to say about it. That’s not really due to the subject matter being unrelatable or anything, since it’s the rare case of a movie set in the past with an entirely Black cast that isn’t ever about race. Instead, it’s the kind of film that (with a few tweaks) you could easily imagine with a white cast. And yet, the specificity of the Creole culture and the fact the family lives on this elegant estate lends it another layer of feeling like the characters are haunted by the past even if all their problems are in the present. Almost like it’s a ghost story, but instead of there being actual spirits in the house, the family is haunted by the (very much alive) patriarch roaming around the halls of his estate, whose sins make him feel more than just a little bit doomed.