"Memory is a selection of images. Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. Each image is like a thread. Each thread woven together to make a tapestry of intricate texture and the tapestry tells a story and the story is our past."
So opens and concludes one of the most underrated, forgotten gems of the 1990s, Eve’s Bayou. Directed and written by Kasi Lemmons, this is a landmark film about the loss of innocence, family, and the notions of truth in our world. On another level, it serves as a wonderful example about a film’s power to act in chorus with other films, both through paying homage to a particular movie and challenging that filmmaker’s thesis.
Many films are strengthened when they engage other works, qualifying messages or refuting moral viewpoints. Famous examples include Hitchcock’s subversive view of Middle America, Shadow of a Doubt, which was envisioned as an anti-Our Town (and was actually written by the same playwright, Thorton Wilder). While someone like Tarantino might rightfully be criticized for over relying on being referential, the infamous 1-2-3 dialogue between Arthur Miller and Elia Kazan proves great work can be produced when rebutting a previous work. In an era where referencing other films/shows is the new key to reaching audiences, Eve’s Bayou stands as a measured approach to communicating with a previous film while standing on its own as a story.
With Eve’s Bayou, Lemmons boldly positions her movie against one of the screen’s greatest tales of courage and fatherly good will, To Kill a Mockingbird. In fact, Lemmons seeks to refute and strike down the paternal stoicism of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch by positioning her lead (Samuel L. Jackson) as a kind of anti-Atticus.
Perhaps not unintentionally, Eve’s Bayou is set in 1962, the same year Universal Pictures released To Kill a Mockingbird. Also like Mockingbird, we open with a modern day narration from a woman, the titular Eve Batiste, remembering one fateful summer she had in the Deep South. By the film’s end, she comes to a place of self-discovery, with an especially fresh view of her father. Sound familiar?
Initially, the Batistes appear to be a shining example of a great Southern family. Unlike the Finches, they are wealthy and, mirroring Atticus the reliable town lawyer, Jackson’s Louis Batiste is the go-to town doctor. Both men are forthright and respected by their family. However, when it becomes clear that Jackson has an obvious dark side, Eve and Mockingbird’s Scout come to learn entirely different lessons.
Both films also feature disturbing scenes where a child’s safety is in jeopardy. With Mockingbird, it is under a clear moral lens and capped with an act of heroism by town spook Boo Radley. However, in Eye’s Bayou, the damage appears to be self-inflicted… or is it? Lemmons teases with her audience by showing the act through the vantage point of several different characters (via flashback). The result is a Rashomon-style tribunal of perspectives, where the audience is forced to observe and contrast the conflicting versions of the truth shown to them. An off-screen situation of conflicting stories in Mockingbird leads to wise Atticus Finch ultimately making clear what was true. Here, in Eve’s depiction of the South, the truth is indiscernible.
The message behind Eve’s Bayou is much more complex than Harper Lee’s story of tolerance and friendship. However, by framing Eve’s Bayou under the structure established in Mockingbird, Lemmons uses the audience’s collective familiarity with that story and builds on it. Once Mockingbird ends, the harsh relativism of Eve’s Bayou picks up. It is as if Eve herself could have gone to see To Kill a Mockingbird, walking away from the theater with a positive, assured view of the world, before returning to the complicated family tragedy of lies, incest and heartbreak.
This worldview is reinforced by Eve’s aunt, played to perfection by Debbi Morgan. As the widow to three husbands, Morgan embodies the film’s ambivalence toward life’s meaning, most specifically during a scene where she reflects on how she could have outlived every man she ever loved. To add insult to injury, Ms. Morgan’s character is a clairvoyant, but is nevertheless unable to avoid life’s cruelty or pinpoint its purpose. It is a truly Oscar-worthy performance; no disrespect to Kim Basinger or Gloria Stuart, but to think Ms. Morgan was never acknowledged with (at least) a Critic’s Prize in 1997 shows the plain silliness and political underpinnings of the film community’s awards system. It is also (accidentally) yet another affirmation of the film’s driving point about perception being reality—whether we like it or not.
Eve’s “tapestry” also tells the story of another (again) forgotten part of the movie: Samuel L. Jackson. As the anti-Atticus, he begins them film as a warm and gentle man – and interestingly, his character never really materializes into being a villain. He is a father, and works hard despite his severe shortcomings. To keep this character so fully realized, it is a credit to the actor and filmmakers. Make no mistake, this is the actor from movies like The Sunset Limited, not Loaded Weapon I.
Mr. Jackson was also a producer of Eve’s Bayou, and has enjoyed collaborating with Ms. Lemmons on several other projects. It is unfortunate that he is overlooked for this part of his filmography in light of his reputation for hamming it up in campfests like Deep Blue Sea and Snakes on a Plane. He truly is a gifted thespian and not simply because of Jules Winfield. His role as Louis Batiste, whose failings and self-doubts threaten to destroy his family, is perhaps only matched by his performance as a drug addict in Jungle Fever. If for no other reason, Eve’s Bayou should be viewed as a final comment on the ability of Mr. Jackson as an actor and as a reinforcement of the sorts of projects he should more often be associated with to better channel his considerable talent.
Film is not only a language, but a living entity that can evolve and react. The best movies exist as fully realized responses that either defy convention in some form or achieve a new level of understanding about the power of the medium. Eve’s Bayou is one such film, as it rightfully sees that there’s so much to a basic “selection of images” on screen and, crucially, in life.