IT'S ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE to hear of a movie about a black family in the Deep South of the 1960s and not make certain assumptions about it. Racial strife, identity struggles, ignorance, hatred and fear all immediately come to mind and make it difficult to imagine that such a story could be told against any other backdrop. But it would be a shame if "Eve's Bayou," Kasi Lemmons' beautiful first feature film, gets pigeonholed as a "black" movie just because it has no white characters. Set in a time when blacks thrived within their own segregated communities -- a time often overlooked in hindsight -- the story focuses on family, not race, although race is neither emphasized nor whitewashed. As the story is told, we understand that identity struggles and oppression -- and even hatred and fear -- are just as often inflicted upon us by our own families as they are by outsiders.
Told through the eyes of 10-year-old Eve (played by Jurnee Smollett in a role likely to make her the most sought-after young actress since Anna Paquin won an Oscar for her performance in "The Piano"), "Eve's Bayou" is about the well-to-do Batiste family, who live in a Louisiana Creole backwater in the 1960s. Despite the first lines of her opening narrative -- "Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others imprinted on the brain. The summer I killed my father I was 10 years old" -- the story is not so much a murder mystery as a tale told in the Southern Gothic tradition about a young girl struggling to understand why people choose not to believe what they already know to be true. Still at that precious age when truth and honesty are one and the same, Eve is confused by the moral ambiguities in the adults around her, and she ultimately betrays and is betrayed by what she sees as their self-delusion.
Equal parts sweet sugar cane and fiery Louisiana hot sauce, young Eve competes with her goody-goody older sister Cisely (played by talented and beautiful Meagan Good) for the attention of their father (Samuel L. Jackson). Dr. Louis Batiste is a hard-working physician, a loving father -- and an almost involuntarily charming womanizer. It's the intensity of the sisters' rivalry during a party in which they both try to dance with Daddy that gives us our first glimpse into the potentially perverse effect that his lady-loving reputation has on his family. Like their mother, the beautiful but long-suffering Roz (Lynn Whitfield), both girls are too polite to cut in on the woman with whom their father has been dancing all night. Later, when Eve tells Cisely that she saw their father fooling around with the same woman, Cisely convinces her that it was all a misunderstanding, starting a pattern of denial that only serves to further confuse Eve.
But lies are easily woven into a family's fabric, and once they become integral to its function, exposing them means tearing the whole thing apart. Eve is either too naive or has too much integrity to comprehend this, and with a righteous will she determines to save her father from himself, without first considering the grave consequences. She turns to her father's sister, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), a thrice-widowed, half-crazy psychic, and puts her faith in the power of black magic to avenge all wrongdoing.
Striking a not-so-delicate balance between the magical and the mundane, the scenes with Mozelle are some of the film's funniest and serve to dilute its occasionally overwrought melodrama with poignant humor. Early in the film, shortly after Mozelle's husband (Branford Marsalis) dies, a client comes by to offer her condolences. When the woman starts sermonizing -- "I don't know why the good Lord saw fit to take away another one of your husbands" -- Mozelle quickly interrupts with her own version of the Gospel truth: "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away. Oh well."
Ironically, it's Lemmons' husband, "Gridlock'd" director Vondie Curtis Hall, who comes off as more caricature than character. Playing Grayraven, the black Indian who shows up one day and immediately becomes Mozelle's devoted lover, he makes his greatest contribution to the film through unintentional comic relief. The randomness of his scenes is apparently intended to be funny, but his wooly, gray, waist-long wig, leather vest and huge, turquoise earring are so distractingly ridiculous that he wouldn't have seemed any less authentic had he worn a fake arrow through his head.
Still, there are many touching moments in the film, most of them hinging on the matriarchal support system that keeps the Batiste household together. It's the scenes between the two sisters that are the most heart-wrenching and the most effective in portraying the many overlapping dimensions of family dynamics. Cisely and Eve are forced to navigate through circumstances that make them both allies and rivals, and their words serve as a painful reminder of how hard it is to hate someone you love -- especially when you hate them on behalf of someone else's hurt. When Eve realizes her sister has lied to her about their father, she screams out, "I hated him for you!" -- but then, instinctively knowing what led to such a betrayal, Eve runs to her, crying. The point is made clear: There is no such thing as an isolated incident when it comes to families -- each and every action has a ripple effect.
"Eve's Bayou" treads across a fragile and complex emotional landscape, and Lemmons is exceptionally adept at creating characters who are simultaneously despicable and lovable. The result is a film that is more interested in examining the constantly evolving nature of family relationships than it is in judging where they fall short. As anyone knows, trying to maintain family loyalties can be like tripping through a minefield, and the more you try to remain neutral, the more likely you are to be paralyzed. "Eve's Bayou" is likely to conjure memories of the more difficult times shared with family members -- and make you glad there wasn't a witch doctor around every time you swore you wanted to kill one of them.