A well-off Creole family navigates adultery and fortune telling in 1960's Louisiana.
Directed by Kasi Lemmons
Starring Jurnee Smollett, Samuel L. Jackson, and Debbi Morgan
Review by Jon Kissel
Most of the film is taken in through the eyes of Eve. An early witness to her father’s infidelity, seeing him with another woman doesn’t diminish her desire to get more of his attention. Simultaneously, she keeps hinting at his sins around others, like she wants him to get caught. Eve’s also the closest to her aunt, listening in while Mozelle performs voodoo rituals and fortune tellings for the townspeople. This is the point where the film loses me. Mystical nonsense exists in the world and it’s perfectly fine that it should intrude into movies. However, movies don’t have to ratify that nonsense, like they do nearly every time a film or a TV show contains a supposedly psychic character. This is a version of copaganda in my book, such that cultural works are passively normalizing a pernicious societal phenomenon. In regards to this plot in Eve’s Bayou, a film about an upper-class Black family suddenly turns into X-Men, where not only does Mozelle have visions like she’s Jean Grey but so does Eve herself. We just finished a month dedicated to Macbeth, another work where prophecy pushes the receiver to take specific actions. The thread in Eve’s Bayou where Eve conspires to get revenge on her father through voodoo is one thing, but there’s actual magic in an adjacent corner of this world. I could give a shit about the specific customs of any culture when it comes to this shit. It’s mysticism and noble savagery and an infection of a rational mind that opens a person up to all the real-world scientific illiteracy that have wreaked havoc on the world, especially in the last two years.
Anyways, away from Mozelle suckering indigent women out of the few bucks they have left to their name and the film treating it like a kindness, Eve’s Bayou starts in on an incest plot that carries it through to its conclusion. The opening narration from an adult Eve spoils that she’s going to ‘kill’ her father, so his death is no surprise when it happens. What is surprising is the tertiary reason for it, where first Louis is having an affair with other men’s wives, Eve all but tells one husband as much, and she does so because Cisely’s pretty sure Louis molested her. This is a gargantuan swing and not one the film can tolerate. Of course, incest is a thing that can and does happen, but the film that contains it needs to be about that deed and its fallout instead of using it as a third act development. That the film ends with an undercutting of Cicely’s account and the likelihood that the more innocent, if strange, version is the truer one makes the film into a thematic mystery. Memories are fuzzy and fungible, as the voiceover from an adult Eve declares. Ok, but the film only takes place in a single time period and, outside of the incestuous event, has no alternate takes on events as they happen. This isn’t a case of the unreliable narrator. The film is interested in evoking a place, which it’s successful at, but the feeling associated with that place is so heightened that it misses the mark.
A film this scattershot at least has a compelling cast to hold attention. As Eve, Jurnee Smollett would be the first of her family to achieve fame, though another would later achieve infamy. As a child actor, she’s putting the most emphasis on Eve’s extremes of tearful panic or toothy glee. It’s not a subtle or interior performance, but it is one that draws focus and keeps it on her cherubic face. Jackson gets the occasional reminder to cap his sentences with a Creole accent, but outside of that questionable choice, he’s believable as the town’s amenable playboy who lets everything roll off his back. Whitfield and Morgan are a credible mother-daughter pair, with both embodying a kind of oblivious poise that demands things look correct when they’re actually falling apart. Lastly, as irritating as I found the way the movie interpreted Mozelle’s character, Morgan gives the character a fire and a dignity that briefly quiets my disdain.
Eve’s Bayou is not at all what I thought it was going to be. Knowing only about its general setting, I was sure this was going to be about racial struggle when it’s not about that at all. I should’ve paid more attention to its release date. The 90’s had a lot of Black-led films that placed their characters in middle class lives. This color-blind approach faded into the 2000’s and by the 2010’s, it’s impossible to pull a Black-led film that doesn’t have a social justice angle out of a dwindling pile. Eve’s Bayou is a handsome entry in an interesting cinematic period and a satisfactory coming-of-age story. Its reputation suggested something more, and I can’t help but feel disappointed. C