Sunday, February 15, 2009

Holding Out For A Hero: Eve's Bayou

By Odienator

Kasi Lemmons must think Samuel L. Jackson is sexy. Of the three films she’s directed, two feature Sam and both tease from his performance and persona a sensuality unseen in most of his work. Sam can always be counted on to scare the hell out of you, cuss you out, or kill you, but he wasn’t the go-to-guy for seduction. Other directors have reminded us that, despite not being movie-star handsome, Jackson was still entitled to nookie, but it was either in his past (Black Snake Moan) or used for comedic purposes (Soul Men). Even John Singleton neutered Sam—and he cast him as the man whose theme song tells you in its first line that he gets copious amounts of ass.

Lemmons will have none of that. In her directorial debut, Eve’s Bayou, she and Jackson make his character, Louis Batiste’s dangerous sexuality the centerpiece of the picture. She doesn’t make Jackson look any different (though for a change he has a normal hairstyle); instead she makes us see him through the eyes of all the female characters in the movie. Jackson, who was instrumental in getting this film to the screen, seizes the opportunity, channeling his usual onscreen confidence into the pursuit not of vengeance but of conquest. It works; Jackson looks at the beautiful women onscreen with a convincing combination of playa’s hustle and insatiable need. “To a certain type of woman, I am a hero,” he says late in the picture. “I need to be a hero.”

One of the many visual motifs running through Eve’s Bayou is the way Batiste touches the faces of females in the film. With his finger, he gently caresses their cheek, or just under their chin. He looks at them, giving the perception that, for this brief moment in time, they are the only other person in the universe. He does it to his wife, Roz (Lynn Whitfield) and his mistress Mattiie (Lisa Nicole Carson). He also employs this move to console his daughters, 14-year old Cisely (Meagan Good) and 10-year old Eve (Jurnee Smollett), though without the perception of seductive intent. In a film about how actions are perceived, and how they can be misconstrued by the receiver, allowing his daughters to, in his words, “adore him” will have unintended consequences for Louis.

Eve’s Bayou is narrated by the adult Eve, and she is an unreliable narrator not in the sense that she isn’t telling us the truth per se; she is unreliable the way one’s memories can only record one’s own take on the situation. The narration is used sparingly, only at the beginning and end of the film, but reliable or not, its first line is a hook baited with intrigue and promise:

“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.”

The narrator informs us that the Eve in the title was a slave woman who cured her master’s severe illness with “powerful medicine.” As a result, he freed her and she bore him 16 children. “We are the descendants of Jean-Paul Batiste and Eve. I was named after her.” Since this is Louisiana, that “powerful medicine” implies voodoo, and the film’s notions of what Black folks call “the sight” and voodoo curses are woven into the story’s tapestry in the same nonchalant manner as Latin American fiction like Isabelle Allende’s The House of the Spirits or Laura Esquivel’s Como Agua Para Chocolate: it’s just a regular item in the day to day workings of the plot.

Eve’s Bayou was passed down from generation to generation of Batistes, and when the film opens, we are introduced to them all. There’s Louis, his mother (Ethel Ayler), his wife Roz, his three children, Cisely, Eve and 9-year old, Poe (Jake Smollett), and his sister Mozelle (All My Children’s Debbi Morgan). We’re also introduced to the Mereaux’s, Mattie and Lenny (Roger Guenveur Smith). Rounding out the characters is Uncle Harry (Branford Marsalis), Mozelle’s husband. Harry provides one of the film’s symbols, a silver dollar he pulls from behind Eve’s ear when she offers him chocolate.

The main plot points in the film are encapsulated in this brief party sequence. After dancing way too seductively with her husband, Mattie dances almost as dirty with Louis while both Roz and Lenny watch. Lenny is oblivious to his wife’s involvement with Louis, but Roz has known of and tolerated Louis’ indiscretions for most of their marriage. Uncle Harry gets drunk and has an argument with Mozelle over whether he should drive, and while she gets the keys from him, he still manages to be killed. This makes him the third dead husband in a row for Mozelle.

Lemmons is drawn to strong and unconventional women in her films: Taraji P. Henson’s wonderful girlfriend in Talk to Me, Ann Magnuson’s sexually daring artist seducing Sam Jackson’s schizophrenic in The Caveman’s Valentine, and this film’s Mozelle, one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever seen. Mozelle is beautiful yet cursed. Her curse isn’t that every man she marries winds up dead, but that she has the power of clairvoyance (“the sight”) yet she can’t see her own future. Debbi Morgan inhabits this character as both a sensual woman and the tough Black aunt we all remembered from our youth, the one who spoke her mind yet could offer a comfort rivaled only by (and sometimes surpassing) one’s mother.

Mozelle works as a reader, but more on her in a second. One would probably call her a psychic, but not if you came from my neighborhood. Where I grew up, there was a reader in the neighborhood whom people went to for advice or for prayer. She was always telling people things, and so help me, a lot of the time she was right. Not generic John Edward type things either—she provided detailed information. She told my mother that I had an old soul, which explains why I’ve acted like a grumpy old man my entire life. (“Ain’t this a bitch?” I thought, “I got somebody else’s USED soul!”) She also told me I would marry a woman who played the organ at church (I did) and that when I was a teenager, I would get hurt severely and lose an appendage. I panicked, thinking I’d lose an arm or a leg. She was close. I lost an eye.

Black folks are a superstitious lot, probably due to our ties to the South. I’ve written off much of the things we believe in, but I cling to a few of them simply because I don’t want to tempt the powers that be. We, like Latin American readers, may have an easier time accepting these paranormal phenomena simply because we’ve heard stories like these passed down from generation to generation; they become one of those accepted things. Lemmons uses Mozelle’s skill as less of an ironic plot point than it may seem, and I was grateful that a film about the past didn’t skirt some of the more colorful aspects of the oral tradition of Black history being passed down. We were always told the reader could never read her own future.

Louis thinks Mozelle is somewhat crazy. “She is not unfamiliar with the inside of a mental hospital,” he says, but both his mother and Roz are true believers. Roz visits a reader at the market, accusing Mozelle of having “professional jealousy.” The competition is played by Diahann Carroll in a creepy, sarcastic performance. Carroll tells Roz to “look to your children” just before Mozelle has a vision of someone’s child being run over by a bus. Roz panics, and attempts to keep her three children from going outside in an attempt to keep the vision from coming true. How it plays out results in one of the more morbidly funny sequences in Eve’s Bayou.

How much of what’s happened in my life was predicated on what I knew was predicted? I didn’t marry the church musician because I was told I would, nor did I do anything to cause my half-blindness, nor did I do any of the other things the reader told my mother, true things that I have not told you. Eve’s Bayou plays with this concept. Eve kills her father by obtaining a voodoo death curse from crazy-ass Diahann Carroll. Or does she? (My lack of quotation marks around the word kills gives you my answer.) Did keeping her kids inside prevent Cisely, Eve and Poe from being run over? I was under the impression that you couldn’t hide from Death. He would have sent The Car from the 1977 eponymous horror movie to jump through their bedroom window if he wanted to run over one of the Batiste brood. So how much do we accept as that old Black magic? Eve’s Bayou leaves that up to you.

Perception is everything. When Eve catches her father and Mattie in a compromising position, Louis comforts her and sends her back to the party. When Eve tells Cisely what she saw, Cisely, who idolizes her father, changes the story around to make both parties innocent. Lemmons uses a mirror to present this change in the story (which Eve pretends to believe to please her sister), and unlike Douglas Sirk’s usage as a means of identity in Imitation of Life, Lemmons uses her mirrors as a conduit for reflection, not only of one’s image but of one’s own version of memories. In the film’s best sequence, Mozelle tells Eve the story of how her second husband died, and it is not only reflected in a mirror, but at one point, Mozelle appears in the reflection, her present self transported to the past as she tells the tale.

Uncle Harry’s coin has two sides. Several characters in Eve’s Bayou are two sides of the same coin. Early in the film, Eve has a vision (featuring Uncle Harry’s spinning coin) of his death that alerts us to her also having the sight. This makes her one side of the same coin as her favorite aunt, Mozelle. Roz and Lenny are two sides as well, both becoming angry when their spouses’ infidelity comes to light. The most interesting and surprising pairing is Mozelle and Louis.

Mozelle tells Roz “we're two of a kind, my brother and I.” Not knowing if Mozelle is intended to be older or younger than Louis, I still concluded that Louis is actually a male Mozelle, not the other way around as most have read this relationship. Mozelle’s inability to see her own future is some kind of magical affliction; Louis’ inability is a pure lack of common sense. And while it’s clear that our view of Louis, in all his seductive glory, is a byproduct of our narrator’s memories and the director’s love for the character, Lemmons is making an interesting point about the differences between the sexes. Louis’ inability to see his future is rooted in his disregard for reality, bucking the idea that a woman’s emotions cloud her judgment. Louis is messing with the wife of a married man in the neighborhood, flaunting his affair in front of everyone while Lenny is out of town. Didn’t he know that eventually Lenny would find out?

Mozelle foreshadows this in her mirror memory, as she too was having an affair with a man who, like Lenny, shows up with a gun to take his woman away. However, her affair is far more clandestine than Louis’—she doesn’t flaunt it at all—and when her husband stands up to her lover, telling him that he will not be running off with his wife, Mozelle realizes not only the error of her ways but also that she loved her husband more than ever. In Mozelle’s tragedy, the innocent is sacrified; in Louis’ it’s the guilty.

Lemmons visually represents Mozelle and Louis’ connection by two visual images of men with hats appearing from the shadows out of nowhere. The man who appears at Mozelle’s door is her possible salvation, a painter played by Lemmons’ husband, Vondie Curtis-Hall, who becomes her fourth husband; the man who appears for Louis is also husband material, except its Mattie’s husband and Louis’ undoing.

Eve witnesses Louis’ murder and is sure that it’s because of her voodoo curse. Bayou depicts the temporary rift between Eve and her father as the byproduct of a rift between Cisely and Louis. Both sisters vie for their father’s affection (Poe seems not to register, and I don’t know if that was a mistake or a point in Lemmons screenplay), and Cisely gets most of her father’s attention, which she relishes. Though they have sisterly rivalry, Eve and Cisely remain close and though she’s younger, Eve develops a fierce protection of her sister after Cisely reveals to Eve that Louis made a sexual pass at her. The pass results in Cisely fighting Louis off, and him slapping her. This sets Eve’s plan of voodoo murder in action, but again it’s all about perception. When we see these events from Louis perspective (the correct one), we realize that Cisely was the aggressor, kissing her father inappropriately due to her own teenage confusion. Louis regrets slapping her, but it was an honest reaction. “That’s when I lost her,” he tells Mozelle in a note. The charming father no longer existed for Cisely—he had rejected her in her mind, but for Eve, her guilt over his death elevated Louis into the charming man onscreen. We see him having affair after affair, but his charm never subsides.

Eve’s Bayou is unlike any other Black themed picture I’ve seen. In addition to its gothic feel (the cin-tog by Amy Vincent is excellent at evoking not only the bayou but the radiance of the actors’ faces), it presents an affluent Black family. They throw parties in a big house, they own the land and the bayou, they dress to the nines at social events, and Louis is a doctor, which gives him plenty of time to make house calls.

I guess you could call Eve’s Bayou a chick flick, but it doesn’t play into those clichés. Usually the cheating husband is treated as a rascal and a scoundrel, but it’s clear that Louis loves his children and, to some extent, his wife. He isn’t demonized in the film, which is why I’d pull this out of that genre. Louis wanted to be a hero, but sometimes, as voodoo Diahann Carroll says, heroes “fall on their own sword.” Eve’s Bayou, and Eve herself, sees Louis as that kind of tragic hero.


Brian said...

Wow. This piece brings back the memory of a film I really liked when I saw it all those years ago. Now I want to watch it again!

And thanks for reminding me of Ann Magnuson in the Caveman's Valentine. I'd almost completely forgotten that film, but I think it'd be worth a rewatch too. Perhaps its time for Lemmons-fresh retrospective...

odienator said...

Perhaps its time for Lemmons-fresh retrospective...

Don't forget to put Talk To Me in there too!