Christened “the best film of 1997” by the late film critic Roger Ebert, Eve’s Bayou continues to leave a spell-bounding mark on audiences on its 20-year anniversary.
The film, written and directed by Kasi Lemmons in her directorial debut —and executive produced by Samuel L. Jackson— tells a story about the Batistes, an affluent Creole family in Louisiana. After a party, main character, Eve witnesses her father having sex with a family friend causing a ripple effect of a turbulent summer leading to tragedy.
Starring Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Meagan Good, Jake Smollett and Diahann Carroll, the film received accolades including nominations for the 1998 NAACP Image Awards.
“I feel very blessed,” Lemmons told ESSENCE about the legacy of the film. “Honestly, it’s a little intimidating because it was my first film. I always kind of want to be that free again. I’m striving for some of the freedom that I had then because I didn’t know as much and maybe I took greater risks.”
Smollett, who played Poe Batiste, expresses how Lemmons’ depiction of a Black family shows the true importance of representation.
“It [was] important to show how colorful we are as Black people because so many times other people tell our stories,” Smollett said. “It’s really important for us to tell our own stories because we’re the ones that have the tales of people like the Batiste family.”
Lemmons (Silence of The Lambs, The Caveman’s Valentine) began her career as an actress and was auditioning for a television show for John Ryans before she made the leap to directing. Being a true storyteller at heart, at his request she told a story about her aunt. This would lead to the conception of her masterpiece.
“The character of Mozelle is based on my aunt Muriel... loosely,” Lemmons said. “Some of the more fantastical are completely eccentric qualities that Mozelle had were family folklore that surrounded my aunt.”
“So, I started talking about how many husbands my aunt had, how they tended to die and there were some family folklore about she and my mother having gone to a fair and a fortune teller said, ‘Some things are better left unsaid’ and called her a black widow. So, I went home and I was like, ‘That was a good story. I should write that down.’”
Lemmons began writing a collection of short stories about a brother and sister visiting a sick relative that lived upstairs and the legend of Eve and Jean Paul Batiste. Then she wrote about a Creole family in Louisiana revolving around the father, a well-respected “colored” doctor, Louis Batiste.
Emmy Award-winning actress Whitfield, a Louisiana native, felt deeply connected to her character Roz Batiste. Whitfield told ESSENCE, “You could see more into her soul through her eyes and what she didn’t say than what she said.”
“I wanted to be a part of honoring this Creole family that you don’t normally get to see and it was a very interesting role. And to this day, I still haven’t seen anything that resembles it in terms of its beauty of cinema, it’s complex story. So rich, so magical, so tragic. I think that Kasi knew the impact it would have. I don’t think I knew at the time.”
When it came to search for a child actor to carry the film as the precocious middle child Eve Batiste, days before shooting, Lemmons knew she found her in then 10-year-old actress Jurnee Smollett. Known for her TV roles on Full House and On Our Own, Smollett-Bell, now 31, credits her experience on set to falling in love with the art of acting. Alongside Morgan (All My Children), her performance as Eve wowed audiences for her level of maturity as a child actor.
“I don’t know if I would be doing what I do without Eve’s Bayou and I don’t know if I would have the career that I have without working on Eve’s Bayou. The love for what I do, I found it in that project,” Smollett-Bell said. “I wouldn’t be able to tackle a character like Rosalee on Underground without having tackled the many characters I’ve played before.”
ESSENCE talks to the cast of Eve’s Bayou about its enduring legacy.
On the 20th anniversary and impact of the show:
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: “I think it’s such a source of pride for all of us because it stood the test of time. It will go down being such a classic film and I think it’s such an honor to be a part of something like that even 20 years later. It still makes an impact on people. It still resonates.”
Meagan Good: “I feel, honestly, really honored to have been able to be a part of it. For me, a huge deal because it was my first leading role as a kid and I did the table read for it about four years prior when Kasi was still putting together the money for the movie and I played Eve. A few years later I was like, ‘I have to be Cicely!’ To work with such an incredible cast, and Kasi is just brilliant. She is one of my favorite directors that I’ve ever worked with and taught me so much, and Sam taught me so much, and Lynn. It was just an experience that I’ve cherished and to have people cherish it that way, it means a lot.”
Jake Smollett: “I have friends in NYU film schools and it’s shown there. It just really holds up because of the director, Kasi. I mean, she made a masterpiece. It’s funny seeing people online and if you put a throwback Thursday picture of Eve’s Bayou, people are just funny with the quotes. ‘Get out of the damn tub!’”
On memorable experiences from shooting the film:
Lynn Whitfield: “It’s a rainy night in the film and I was sitting in a chair looking out of the window and Cicely comes up and we’re having a very intense conversation about her staying in her place. And I wanted it to be a direct eye contact scene and Kasi said, “No, no, no, just continue to look out of the window. Do not look at each other.” I was so uncomfortable doing it because I was giving her the business, I was laying down the law. When I saw it, it was incredibly powerful. Kasi was right, it was more powerful than the obvious.”
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: “Once I was casted, my whole family drove down in our big Suburban from Los Angeles to New Orleans and on the way there, it was my 10th birthday. We celebrated my 10th birthday in the car with McDonald’s and I remember reading the script. That’s when I first read the script and I remember I understood Eve. I think that whole process is when I fell in love with the craft and understanding the character work.”
Kasi Lemmons: “[Scene between Mozelle and Eve laying on a tree branch] Mozelle comes over and says, ‘Last night, I had a dream that I was flying.’ I had written that based on a dream I had. I wrote it the night before cause now we’re constructing a new ending. It’s just amazing to watch somebody do something you’ve written the night before and to have Eve’s reaction to it. So emotional, and so that was very beautiful as well. Lynn’s scene when she says, ‘I feel like I’m falling.’ It’s troubling and romantic because she is weak for him. ‘I trusted you Louis... I loved you Louis’ —the compilation of loving his friend but sleeping with his wife, showing the complication of the strange things they do and not understanding why sometimes. Moments with the actors where they really just transcended the material and just gave me goosebumps.”
On working with Kasi Lemmons:
Meagan Good: “Kasi, she’s super dear to my heart —and her husband Vondie Curtis Hall, who plays Debbi’s love interest in the movie. She gave me my first leading role as a child and Vondie gave me my first leading role as an adult in Waist Deep. And so, that couple, to me, single handedly kept me with more opportunities than anyone else."
Lynn Whitfield: "It was just a great experience and still to this day, I think it’s a classic because Kasi Lemmons was so clear. She had such a clear vision for the film. She worked on the story for a long time and she just brought this magic to it.”
Jurnee Smollett-Bell: “The image of these two women, Kasi and Amy (director of photography), I mean, it will forever sit with me. I don’t think they realize how trailblazing they were but they were. Just the image of these women behind the camera was so powerful to me and stuck with me to this day and inspired me. I think Kasi had such a command with her approach. It was like poetry.”
On the infamous kiss between Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) and Cicely (Meagan Good):
Kasi Lemmons: “My intention was, what if you explode this moment? It’s actually a very innocent relationship that they’re having. He loves his daughter, she adores her father. They adore each other and what if one night they crossed a line and were both traumatized by it completely? Completely traumatized but it spun everything else out of control. So, to me, it wasn’t controversial. It was the story. It was strange for people to ask me, ‘Why do you have that angle there?’ Well, that’s the story.”
Meagan Good: “We had to shoot it probably 15 times. We had to shoot my perspective, his perspective, and then the actual perspective of what really happened. I remember the day before the scene, everyone was so anxious. ‘You okay? You okay?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ Sam was as equally nervous. That was kind of the defining moment. That’s the moment that brought the movie together and what it was based on. I felt a huge responsibility to do a good job but I was definitely nerved-racked for sure. “
On Meagan Good and Jurnee Smollett-Bell as child actors tackling such heavy moments:
Jake Smollett: “I have always admired my sister’s ability to just turn those tears on. Our mom was our acting coach growing up and she’d have us do cry on-cue sessions. Being a 10-year-old shooting a film and having to be in that mode the majority of the film, I still look back to that and I’m like wow. She is one of the best actresses I’ve worked with for sure and that being your sister, you’re just gleaming with pride. Nonstop pride.”
Kasi Lemmons: “I had shot some stuff where the girls got older and that was the way the script was originally written, that it resolved when the girls were older teenagers and I had their sisters playing them and they were wonderful! I thought they were wonderful but what you realize is that you’re so wrapped up in these little girls, you just don’t want to see anybody, you just wanted to see the little girls. Eve comes outs and says, ‘You lied to me!’ and ‘Tell me what happened.’ Cicely has to admit that she doesn’t quite know what happened. That was an incredible moment to shoot with such young actors with such depth and such understanding of the roles that they were playing and with so much control. There was a lot on the line and I needed these two girls to pull this out, to pull these performances out. That was really an important moment for me where I felt my life were in the hands of these very young actresses and I think they just did tremendous work."