Eve’s Bayou, Kasi Lemmons’s amazing directorial debut, is the story of a young girl who learns a public secret about her father and must deal with the consequences of her discovery. Through a combination of voiceover narration, flashbacks, and premonitions within memories, Eve’s Bayou turns out to be much more than the tale of ten-year-old Eve becoming disillusioned with her father. The film underscores how blurry truth can be when one relies on sight and memory.
“Memory is the selection of images- some illusive, others imprinted indelibly on the brain,” the adult Eve Batiste narrates as the film opens. “The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.” She then briefly details more of the Batiste family history, including how they are descended from her namesake, a slave who cured General Batiste’s bout with cholera and was awarded the bit of Louisiana land. The land also holds her name, and that ancestor then bore the General sixteen children. Through this short account, Lemmons showcases the family’s connection to the land and weaves the three Eves: Eve of family legend, young Eve, and the narrator. At first, it seems as if the narrator will have more of a presence, but she seems to bookend the film, leaving the majority of it to young Eve, as played by Journee Smollett.
From the memory of the ten-year-old in the 1960s, the Batiste family is fully introduced. Louis Batiste (Sam Jackson), Eve’s father, is the local, well-off doctor, whose much sought-after skills seem to go beyond the sick room. Roz Batiste (Lynn Whitfield) is his wife, a woman who keeps her eyes on Creole tradition and away from her husband’s late-night house calls. The Batiste’s other children are Cisely (Megan Good) and a younger son, Poe (Jake Smollett). Their aunt, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), Louis’ sister, is clairvoyant, a gift she has in common with Eve.
The Batistes host a rousing house party, and Eve, feeling put out by the attention her father shows Cisely, leaves for a favorite hideout and falls asleep. An unfamiliar sound awakens her, and she opens her eyes to see her father engaged in a tryst with a married woman. He attempts to soothe her, and Eve eventually confides in her sister, who tells her what she saw wasn’t true. Cisely walks through the recent memory, inserting herself, shifting the events for something more palatable. Cisely’s attempt to re-work Eve’s memory seems to stem from a Daddy’s Girl’s desire to keep the image of her father pure. As the film progresses, Cisely becomes more distant yet rebellious and later gives Eve a heavy secret of her own. One night after Roz and Louis have argued, Cisely searches for her father to comfort him, and they share a kiss like lovers. As a result, Cisely begins to defend her father to her mother through tantrums tinted with a woman’s jealousy and possessiveness.
After learning of the incident between her sister and father, Eve realizes that what she saw from the night of the party was, in fact, true, and sets out for revenge. Her journey leads her to the fulfillment of one of Mozelle’s misinterpreted forewarnings and her own ill-planned wishes to see her father dead. Through the course of these events, Lemmons circles back to Roz, a woman marginalized by her husband as he serviced his largely female clientele as well as by her daughters, who both constantly vied for the attention of their father. Commenting on her husband’s infidelities, Roz reveals that turning a blind eye is what must be done to keep up appearances, those traditions stuck in cultural and familial memories, and that it is the price one pays for being with a man who can “fix things,” like her own father was once able to do.. Although the Batiste family is majority female, its happiness and misery find their roots in Louis. With his death, Roz, Cisely, Eve, and even Mozelle must determine the best way to remain whole and be a support to one another.
Looking to heal her family, Eve discovers a letter from Louis to Mozelle, a letter that details his own recollection of what happened with Cisely. Now Eve has two versions of what happened. As quickly as she believed her sister, she believes her father’s version as well and confronts Cisely. Eve, following the methods of her aunt, tries to find Cisely’s truth. Unfortunately, Cisely’s memories of the event with her father are nothing more than a “selection of images,” as the narrating Eve first mentions, which don’t necessarily bring the type of closure Eve wanted. The film closes with Eve, unable to find truth in memory, accepting the truth of family.
Although Kasi Lemmons has since directed Caveman’s Valentine and Talk to Me, Eve’s Bayou is her best-received film to date (and having seen Talk to Me, it’s not difficult to see why). Under her direction, the setting of Eve’s Bayou becomes its own character, casting light and shadows over those selections of images that haunt the family. From the start of the film, the land is as much a part of the family history as the blood they share, and as the film ends, it is the land that surrounds and protects Cisely and Eve as they search for the truth. Setting after setting, Lemmons shows Southern Black class distinctions and intermingling, and does an outstanding job of showing Louisiana to be more than the French Quarter in New Orleans. Lemmons pulls her audience into each flashback without creating any webs of confusion as easily as the characters place themselves in those memories and shift them, re-live them. The subtle way she deals with the incestuous kiss and the overlapping side stories of the Batiste family should have garnered at least one Academy Award nomination, but, unfortunately, that was not the case. Regardless, she received much critical praise for the film and its performances, as she should have.