'Eve's Bayou': Kasi Lemmons On Her Classic Southern Gothic Breakout Now On Criterion [Interview]

“Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others imprinted indelibly on the brain,” says the film’s narrator, voiced by Tamara Tunie. Kasi Lemmons’ eerie, Southern Gothic directorial feature debut, “Eve’s Bayou,” is as elusive twenty-five years later as it was in 1997. 

It concerns Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), the youngest daughter of the respected and popular doctor Louis Batiste (Samuel L Jackson). Her family is the center of an affluent Creole-American community. Their lavish home, situated at the foot of a shimmering bayou, hosts lively parties where other middle-class Black folks gather to joyously dance the night away. It’s an idyllic childhood until she witnesses a traumatic event that totally alters how she sees her once-untarnished father. 

But did she actually see what she thinks she saw? That question clouds every relationship in this tightly-wound supernatural drama. 

READ MORE: Kasi Lemmons: The Power of Myth, History, And Black Love [Be Reel Podcast]

Eve rebels against her mother (Lynn Whitfield); she fights with her older sister (Meagan Good), who is equally going through substantial changes of her own; and grows closer with her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan). Both Eve and Mozelle share a similar ability for sight. They are enraptured by visions that foretell the future, and even, sometimes, trap them in the past. From its resplendent gowns and suits to the vibrant community it enlivens, “Eve’s Bayou” is specifically a Black Southern story, and in particular, a narrative about Black womanhood. It features tremendous, breakout performances by Smollett and Good; a stirring, mysterious turn by Morgan; unflinching dramatic leaps by Whitfield, and Jackson at his most slippery. It is as beautifully rendered by virtue of Amy Vincent’s evocative photography and Terrence Blanchard’s score, as the thick, warm air. It’s available now via the Criterion Collection.

During our conversation, Lemmons spoke about finding the Batiste home, Black regality, and the sensuality of Samuel L Jackson, and shared an update about her new film, the Whitney Houston biopic, “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”      

The short “Dr. Hugo,” which centers on a scene from “Eve’s Bayou,” is so different in tone from the film. Why did you go more comedic with that as opposed to “Eve’s Bayou”?
It was definitely what we call now a proof of concept, right? It was something to show my producer that I was a director. I made films in film school. And he was like, Nah, not those little documentary shorts you made before. Because he was taking a gamble on me. So I think for Caldecot Chubb, he wanted to make sure that I was comfortable with 35mm and a crew and that kind of storytelling. 

I wanted [Dr Hugo] to have its own, what I teach now as a professor, circularity. I wanted it to have its own integrity as a film. So I thought, let me take a little tiny vignette scene in “Eve’s Bayou” because, of course, I had the script, and make a film that would give it a punch. The doctor pays a house call to a married lady. Is there a price to pay? How do you make it fun? So I decided to take more of an O. Henry approach. Just to make it funny and ironic. 

The experiment that I was likening to “Eve’s Bayou,” to my script, was an experiment in language. It was a way of talking that was familiar to me. It was somebody in my family, my relatives, and in some cases, even my ancestors talking to me. Those voices would say crazy things that we can’t even imagine right now like: How about one for the road? We can’t imagine someone saying that now. But that was definitely part of the language that I grew up with, an elevated way of looking at Southern Black vernacular.

So that really is present in “Dr. Hugo,” and something I was playing with. How do you make that enjoyable and natural? How do I get the audience to see the deliciousness that I saw in a certain language in my family? And “Eve’s Bayou” always had a completely different tone. It always existed, and there was a script. But I kind of went a different direction with “Dr. Hugo.” 

What was the location scouting like for the Batiste home?
Well, one of the weird challenges that is not necessarily conspicuous is that I didn’t want them to be in a plantation house. I just didn’t want the Batistes to have that vibe. You know? I didn’t want that. I didn’t feel that they lived in a plantation house, even though they were descended, as part of their history, from enslaved people. And yet, we scouted a lot of plantation houses. But, once again, I didn’t like the vibe. 

And I don’t know if you’ve been on plantations, I came to appreciate it in a different way when I was making “Harriet,” it felt like hallowed ground, but in “Eve’s Bayou” that wasn’t what I was going for. That was one of the challenges. I also wanted a house on a bayou. Because I had the final shot of the film in my mind of there being reflective water. And you know, bayous flood. There are not a lot of houses that are just on water? That was also really challenging. So one was finding a house where everything about it said “freedom.” Even deciding on the color inside, which was definitely an argument and a difference of opinion with my production designer about what color means freedom. I wanted it to be Southern, but have a vibe of freedom. And we found that house by the water, which is a parkhouse, and that became the Batiste House.

Meagan Good was originally cast as Eve, but because of how long it took to get the budget she was recast as Cicely. Those two roles are vastly different. Did you always believe she could pull off the latter?
No, it never occurred to me. I mean, with the pigtails and the overalls, she was “Eve.” And she was a little girl and she was right for it. She wasn’t the way it went when we finally made the movie. Because Jurnee had more of that otherworldly equality that I really was looking for in the part. 

But Meagan was a great Eve. First of all, Meagan was a great actor coming out of the gate. So at 10 years old, she would do our table readings; and she would do Eve, and she was great. She was a very sophisticated actor, even for a child.

But it took so long to get the movie made. And one day she walked in and I’m like, ‘Oh my God, this is a beautiful young woman.’ There was a certain, almost a fragility, something that made you wanna protect her. It’s a very delicate age in a young woman’s life. It can be very confusing. And she was so pretty that you just wanted to put your arms around her. That was the quality that I wanted Cicely to have. There’s a danger, you know?

More from this interview on the second page.