Southern Gothic is a sub-genre of fiction that takes place in the American South and that focuses on “grotesque themes”, “damaged, and delusional characters,” with hints of darkness and the supernatural. It also acts as the over-arching theme of Eve’s Bayou (1997), which looks into the façade of an African-American family, living deep in the swamps of 1960’s Louisiana. Writer and director Kasi Lemmons (Harriet (2019)), depicts a black experience that doesn’t root itself in political trauma nor its relationship to the white race. She shows the pulls and tides of familial relationships in an Aster-esque, thoughtful way that displays humanity through the emotions of the women and their psychic abilities.
Eve’s Bayou follows the Batiste family, who act as a picture-perfect vision of the American family; they live in a home with four bathrooms and are able to throw lavish house parties filled with laughter and classical, Southern ambiance. It is the youngest daughter, Eve (Jurnee Smollett), that acts as the narrator of the film, telling her story through a collection of memories of the summer of 1962. Like most ten-year olds, Eve spends most of her time tormenting her younger brother, Poe (Jake Smollett), and riding a push and pull relationship with her older sister, Cisely (Meagan Good), as they both battle for the attention of their mostly absent father, Louis (Samuel L. Jackson.) However, behind the mask of this perfect family lies a Pandora’s box of family secrets and traumas. As Lemmons’ states, memories can be ‘elusive’ and childhood trauma can piece itself together differently in order for the world to make sense. Eve is a wildly misinformed child, no matter how ironclad her memories may feel, you can feel parts of the story missing, keeping the film elusive and open to discussion.
“Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain.”– Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou-1997)
Lemmons creates a foundation for the Batiste family by intertwining the threads of American history into their family descent. The family are descended from a former slave, Eve, and her owner -a French aristocrat who was said to have founded the very town they live in. Now, in 1962, the story of the Batiste family begins at a family party. Eve catches her father having sex with a married family friend, Matty Mareauox (Lisa Nicole Carson), and her child-like world begins to crumble right before her eyes, turning to one of suspicion and anger. Quickly after the initial realization that her family isn’t perfect, every dirty secret of the Batiste family seems to have lost its hiding place and is brought to light for Eve. When her father stays out late every night, even Sundays, this no longer seems like an occupational hazard of being a doctor. Her mother’s uneasiness and her sister’s odd behavior are more than coincidences; they are effects of her father’s indiscretions. They are truths exposing themselves to her that her family is not what it seems.
This directs conversations to Roz Batiste (Lynn Whitfield), a loyal to a fault wife. As her husband unashamedly cheats on her without even the will to try to hide it, Roz is told multiple times throughout the film to “wait it out.” Many women are told the same- to deal with a man’s indiscretions silently while he gets it out of his system – and Lemmons’ depicts Roz’s unraveling through this. Either ignored or asked to stay quiet about her husband’s infidelity, Roz finds herself on the brink of insanity, unsure of every next step. Meanwhile, there is a disconnect in her relationships with her daughters. Living under the scrutiny of Eve, and the resentment of Cisely, proves to be tasking to her heart, and in this way, the humanity of motherhood is brilliantly exposed in a heartbreaking situation. This, in turn, brings attention to Cisely, who has a troubling, Freudian adoration for her father. Coming into womanhood is a confusing time in one’s life, and Cisely is the perfect representation of this. Her resentment of her mother stems from the absence of her father, which she blames on Roz. Her coming of age is a difficult, yet important, piece to this film.
Lastly, Lemmons gives us Mozelle Bautiste Delacroix (Debbi Morgan) – Louis’ sister. A gifted psychic with the sight of everyone else’s future but her own, she is convinced that she is a cursed ‘black widow,’ as every one of her past three husbands have died violent deaths. To a woman like Mozelle, this is the worst kind of life, because life is not worth living to her without someone to love. Mozelle is the listening ear and the advising voice throughout the film; she acts as a mentor to Eve, a friend to Roz, and an ally to her brother – defending his infidelities and trying to put an undoing family together again.
Lemmons’ makes her, quite frankly, under-appreciated directorial debut with a true spectacle of black excellence and prestige. Eve’s Bayou deconstructs the worldview of ten year old Eve and reconstructs it into the vision of a child’s worst fears – full of swamp snakes, scary voodoo women, and betrayals by parents – and is done so brilliantly. Smollett expertly delivers every line, pulling you into her confusion and giving her all to the role, rightfully winning her the Critic’s Choice Award for Best Child Performance in 1997. Ultimately, Eve’s Bayou is the story of four black women experiencing harsh traumas together and it is their relationship to men and each other that holds this film together and pulls them out stronger on the other side.