Tag Archives: Jurnee Smollett

The Fall of Eve: Female Sexuality in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

eves bayou poster

Yes, I know; I have exhausted the topic of Eve’s Bayou beyond repair, but allow me to add another element to the conversation, one that makes this film extremely relevant in a way I’d never considered before.

My initial reaction to Kasi Lemmons’s stellar directorial debut was something like gratitude. Here was a story about a little black girl, told by a little black girl, that had nothing to do with her blackness. Representation in film is no small thing, especially when almost twenty years later, films from the perspective of African-American girls remain a novelty. Much later I discovered The Color Purple (1985) and Crooklyn (1994), but it wasn’t until 2012 with the arrival of Beasts of the Southern Wild that a film even remotely rivaled the affect Eve Batiste’s story had on me.  That’s largely due to the bottomless implications of the tale Eve (played by Jurnee Smollett) spins for us.

“The summer I killed my father I was ten-years-old,” she says in voice-over narration, and we witness how, deep in small town-Louisiana, circa 1963, Eve’s innocence is lost. It all starts when she wakes in the carriage house one night to find her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) having sex with a woman (Lisa Nicole Carson) not her mother (Lynn Whitfield). This event precipitates not just Eve’s “fall” but that of her older sister Cisely (Meagan Good).  

Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, and Jurnee & Jake Smollett in Eve's Bayou

Lynn Whitfield, Meagan Good, and Jurnee & Jake Smollett in Eve’s Bayou

I often came close, but one thing I’ve never deeply examined is how closely the film mimics the Fall of Man, framed in a distinctly feminist context. Our main character isn’t called Eve for nothing. Technically, her namesake is a slave ancestor who healed a cholera-stricken general and then proceeded to bear him sixteen children. But the film’s many Biblical references connect our Eve more strongly to her Biblical counterpart. Of course, we all know the original: God made Adam and Eve, and they lived together in innocent bliss til a serpent tempted Eve with an apple from the Tree of Knowledge. Eve took a bite before offering it to Adam, and thus was born Original Sin, culminating in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden. In the film, there’s a recurring snake motif. Eve and her brother play down by the bayou and stumble across a snake they believe is dead. Eve–and it’s important that it’s Eve–picks it up only to discover that it’s very much alive. In another scene, in order to abate her boredom, Eve places a toy snake on her brother’s pillow beside his head to scare him when he wakes up. Finally, at Eve’s behest, voodoo woman Elzora feeds Louis’s hair to a snake in order to bring about his death.  Eve does her part, too, by hinting heavily to family friend Mr. Meraux that his wife and Louis are having an affair, in a shot set up so that behind Smollett, all that can be seen is a stand stacked with bright red apples.

Historically, culturally, women are regularly portrayed as “seducers” who wield their sexuality like a weapon against men, helpless to resist.  Perhaps that’s part of the reason we as a society can’t seem to wrap our heads around the concept that when a woman’s body is violated it is never, not ever, her fault. In the female-dominated Eve’s Bayou the women are sexually autonomous, not only welcoming but often initiating acts of passion. But considering this is a film placed firmly in the hands of children, a Gothic coming-of-age tale what’s more,  this theme takes on an altogether different, grotesque tone.

The incident that becomes the catalyst for Louis’s death as caused by Eve, is a not very filial kiss between him and Cisely, his clear favorite among his children. The film never gives us a precise answer as to who initiates the kiss, but no matter; it still suggests that black girls are not allowed to explore their sexuality in  a healthy, safe way. Eve, too, certainly suffers a massive blow to her development by witnessing her father with another woman, in what is likely to be her first encounter with sex. I’ve mentioned before in this post the parallels between Eve’s Bayou and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970). Most importantly both works, astounding debuts from African-American women writers, feature the victimization of young black American girls, whose innocence, traditionally, has neither been protected nor valued in a way that other cultures protect the girlhood of their children. Feminist scholar bell hooks has spoken at length over the years about the fetishization of the abused black female body, especially as it relates to big screen imagery, and this was one of her chief complaints about Beasts and 12 Years a Slave (2013).

This element of the film is not unimportant given recent cases like Amber Cole and Dylan Farrow, and the way girls (women, of course, but most importantly even girls) are still viewed as somehow responsible for being taken advantage of.

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The Brownest Eyes: African-American Girlhood on Screen

Toni Morrison's powerful first novel "The Bluest Eye"

Toni Morrison’s powerful first novel “The Bluest Eye”

Toni Morrison is best known for her heart-wrenching epic Beloved (1987), but I think she put out her real magnum opus earlier than that. The Bluest Eye (1970) tells the story of Pecola Breedlove, as seen through the eyes of nine-year-old Claudia MacTeer–both of them, young black girls living in in Ohio. Pecola is the resident black scapegoat, a figure of boundless ridicule and unrestrained contempt in her own community; she is the physical embodiment of their self-hatred, their pain, their subjugation. Hers is the story of a girl who has been called ugly all her life, a girl who is emotionally neglected, sexually abused, and for whom there can be no happy ending outside her disordered, mangled imagination. Depressing as that is, it’s probably one of the frankest, most beautifully realized portraits of black girlhood I’ve ever read about. I don’t believe anyone has ever optioned this novel for the screen, although it is probably the most cinematic and accessible of Morrison’s works. I doubt anyone ever will.

It should come as no great shock to hear (especially from me) that black actresses don’t exactly get the pick of the litter when it comes to roles. It’s unimaginably worse for Asian actresses. To be fair, most women in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera, continue to find themselves stymied by the industry’s stubborn lack of imagination, which is why they’re now racing for TV in droves (see Jane Campion’s miniseries Top of the Lake and Jodie Foster directing an episode of Netflix’s Orange is the New Black–a success for female actresses and characters in its own right). There’s just no getting around the fact that today, in 2013, television–once considered a sure career-killer–strides forward where film retreats: Kerry Washington helms Shonda Rimes‘s latest ABC hit Scandal; Taraji P. Henson regularly kicks ass on CBS’s Person of Interest; and most recently, up-and-comer Kylie Bunbury flips “the popular girl” trope on its head on ABC Family‘s Twisted.

Meanwhile, black women on film are stuck playing Mammies and the sassy and/or wise ethnic friend, amounting to little more than comic relief or props to assist the main character(s) on their journey.

Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Quvenzhane Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

It seems that if you must be female and a minority in this industry, it’s better to be under fourteen. Apparently, that’s where the real meaty roles lie. Over the past few years, independent filmmakers continue to produce engaging, heartfelt stories about and from the perspective of young African-American girls: Eve’s Bayou (1997), Half Nelson (2006), and now Benh Zeitlin‘s critically acclaimed Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) marks another triumph. It’s hardly a trend, and these films certainly have their flaws, but at the very least it offers people of color a chance to shine on screen as human beings rather than concepts.

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Eve’s Bayou

Jurnee Smollett in Eve's Bayou (1997)

Jurnee Smollett in Eve’s Bayou (1997)

Eve’s Bayou was one of the most critically acclaimed films of 1997, but unfortunately overshadowed in popular consciousness by “the other black movie” of the year, George Tillman Jr.‘s Soul Foodwhich packed more star power (it starred Vivica A. Fox, Nia Long and Mekhi Phifer at the height of their careers) and boasted a more palatable (literally) “message.” Both films dealt with the destruction of families, black families specifically, except Soul Food offered audiences comfort in a neatly packaged happily-ever-after conclusion where Eve’s Bayou had none to deliver.

Kasi Lemmons‘ directorial debut tells the story of ten-year-old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), the middle child of an affluent black family in small town (the Eve’s Bayou of the title) Louisiana, circa 1962. One night Eve wakes up to a scene that will forever change the course of her life. Who knows what kind of shenanigans an Eve who did not wake up in the carriage house that fateful night might’ve enjoyed that summer? How much longer would her innocence, her carefree love of life have lasted? No way to tell. For our Eve discovers her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) making love to a woman who is not her mother (Lynn Whitfield), and it is this event that becomes the catalyst for one of the most haunting coming-of-age stories ever to grace the big screen.

Meagan Good as Cisely in Eve's Bayou

Meagan Good as Cisely in Eve’s Bayou

I was pretty young–probably too young, barely eight–when I first watched Eve’s Bayou, and family viewing it was not. No matter, I’ll forever credit this film, this character and Jurnee Smollett’s rendering of her with sparking my love of movies. Disney was all fine and dandy, but here was a little girl, not unlike me, and though her story was not quite my story, through her I experienced powerful catharsis. 

And so I wept with Eve–this relatively normal girl, free from all pretentions–over the loss of innocence in the worst way. For despite being gifted with “The Sight” or clairvoyance, like her Aunt Mozelle (played by Debbi Morgan), she is no melancholy, wise-beyond-her-years Haley Joel Osment balking at her supernatural ability. Eve is first and foremost a child like any other; a child  satisfied to go outside and run; a child who longs to be smothered with affection and independent at the same time; a child who sees her father’s preference for her older sister, sees her mother’s depression, sees her aunt’s loneliness.

The film then becomes an exploration of what such a dark adult world looks like to a kid. If you haven’t guessed, it doesn’t look all that great. Eve is appropriately confused and acts out several times. Before the film’s end we see her steal money from her parents, torment her siblings with merciless teasing, not to mention a disastrous cursing outburst in front of both her mother and aunt. None of this would have worked had Smollett brought an ounce of affectation or traditional Hollywood precociousness to her performance. Fortunately, Eve’s Bayou succeeds firmly in the hands of its young star who emotes like a pro.

A great deal of credit, obviously, is due Lemmons, an impressively meticulous writer and director, given that this was her directorial debut. All her female characters are carefully constructed, and above all else, real. They cannot be defined in a word–strong, brave, confident–for they embody all spheres of womanhood at once. They are both tough and fragile, independent and vulnerable, smart and foolish. If there’s one complaint I have about Eve’s Bayou it’s that her male characters aren’t given the same treatment. They are thinly, unfairly drawn, and pale miserably in comparison to their female counterparts. 

But perhaps that’s just as well. The film belongs to Eve and somewhat less to her older sister Cisely. Lemmons imbues Eve with an autonomy rarely permitted black people on screen, let alone black women: She is the author of her own story. She needs no well-meaning young white person to relay the tale on her behalf (see–or don’t, actually–The Help and/or pretty much any movie about sub-saharan Africa). Framing the film is adult Eve’s shockingly cool voiceover: “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father I was ten-years-old.” And like that she becomes our guide, leading us through this world. Her world.

Smollett and Lynn Whitfield in Eve's Bayou

Smollett and Lynn Whitfield in Eve’s Bayou

Cisely, by the same token, is given the freedom to be downright unlikable.  She is fourteen, trapped in that horrible purgatory between childhood and adulthood, struggling to find who she wants to be. She’s snobbish, a shameless daddy’s girl, and consistently uses her father’s affection to undermine her mother, playing an inadvertent role in wedging them apart. Although, it can be argued that her biggest mistake, which brings the story to its dark climax, is intended to bring them together. Whatever the case, it’s doubtful that you will like her for it by the end; and that’s okay. The point is she exists beyond the rigid confines usually placed upon characters of color and women, and Eve does, too. 

Somehow, writers and filmmakers have confused the demand for “strong female characters” with “perfect female characters.” “Strong” does not necessarily equate with being likable or perfect or saintly. It simply means carved in the image of truth.

These are the characters I fell in love with when I was a child and made me–unable to phrase it at the time, but surely able to feel it–long for more of the same: Girls who were like the ones that I knew. Not perfect, just real.

TO  BE CONTINUED…

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TOP 5 MOST UNDERRATED CHILD PERFORMANCES

JURNEE SMOLLETT Eve’s Bayou

Okay. I know I talk about Eve’s Bayou a lot, but that’s only because it is a truly phenomenal example of filmmaking that has stuck with me for well over a decade. I first watched this film on HBO when I was about eight or nine years old. It was Rated R and I knew better than to ask my mom to purchase  a film that featured sex, drugs, and murder, not to mention incest. After that first viewing, I caught it on television two or three times over the next few years. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I was finally able to purchase the DVD, which, by the way, was not exactly easy to find. I literally called every video place in Columbia until I managed to find it at this small independent shop in the mall. A little over the top? Maybe. But more than anything my determination was a testament to what a profound effect this film had  had on me, even though I hadn’t seen it in years.

One of the main reasons Eve’s Bayou is stuck high in my Top 10 Favorite Movies of All Time is the emotionally raw performance by Jurnee Smollett. I wholeheartedly believe that I was able to love and connect with this very adult story at such a young age because of her. More than I saw myself in her, I knew her.

Jurnee Smollett in Eve’s Bayou

Grown-up Eve’s narration frames the story, but we process the film through the eyes of ten-year-old Eve; and the eyes are very important. Eve is gifted with “The Sight” or clairvoyance, like her Aunt Mozelle, but she is no melancholy, wise-beyond-her-years Haley Joel Osment balking at her supernatural ability. Eve is first and foremost a girl like any other; a girl who sees her father making love to a woman who is not her mother; a girl who sees his preference for her older sister, sees her mother’s depression, sees her aunt’s tragic loneliness. The film becomes an exploration of what such a world looks like to a child. It would not have worked if Smollett had brought an ounce of pretentiousness or precociousness to her performance. Fortunately, Eve’s Bayou succeeds firmly in the hands of it’s young star who emotes like a pro.

MATT O’LEARY Frailty

This is another film that has stuck with me over the years, but for very different reasons. Frailty is not the kind of story you relate to; it’s the kind of story that creeps the hell out of you. Even though most of the violence takes place off screen, the movie still manages to drive the point home in a very unsettling manner. I discovered this film largely thanks, once again, to HBO. Either it had just been released onto video and Pay-Per-View was restlessly advertising its new addition, or I saw the trailer on TV Guide. Whatever the case, I didn’t initially want to see it. It was obviously a horror film; even today I remember being appropriately creeped out by that chilling shot of Matt O’Leary‘s face disappearing in the darkness as his father says, “Only demons should fear me. You’re not a demon, are you?”

Which brings me to Matt O’Leary. This guy is one of the most underrated, underused, unrecognized young actors working today. Sure, he’s appeared in some duds like Sorority Row, but he is at his best in off-beat, thought-provoking indies like American Son and Natural Selection (he’s at it again in the sure to be awesome Fat Kid Rules the World, hopefully released later this year). I mean, kid consistently turns in critically acclaimed performances, but few people know about him and he doesn’t work nearly as often as he should.  He is passed over instead for decidedly mediocre acts like Robert Pattinson and Zac Efron. This is the world we live in.

Matt O’Leary, Jeremy Sumpter, and Bill Paxton in Frailty

Anyway, I first noticed him in Frailty. Having nothing to do and it being the middle of theday (I had hours before I had to go to sleep), I decided to give the film a chance when I watched it On Demand one afternoon at my aunt’s house. I was not disappointed. Thankfully, it was more family drama than horror film. When a man claims to have received a vision from God, telling him to take out the “demons” in their small Texas town, one son (Jeremy Sumpter) accepts his word without question while the other (O’Leary) becomes increasingly disturbed.

Once again, without a solid performance from actor O’Leary, the film would have failed. He turns in a performance that is all at once sympathetic, heartfelt, vulnerable, vaguely sinister, and multi-layered. He had to be about twelve or thirteen when he filmed this, and I always wonder how much of it was deliberate.

If you are a sane audience member, you will most likely side with O’Leary’s character who believes that his father is a whackjob. However, if you ever get a chance to pick up the DVD, the screenwriter offers an entirely different and interesting perspective that will make you think twice about who is supposed to be the hero of this story.

HUNTER MCCRACKEN The Tree of Life

It came as no surprise to me that Terrence Malick‘s latest effort turned out to be one of the most polarizing films of the year, if not the decade. With The Tree of Life, you either hate it or love it. As a Malick fan, and as fan of unconventional films in general, I loved it. In another post a while back, I criticized Malick’s writing. Well, I take it all back. Obviously he’s not a bad writer. It’s just that he rarely gives his characters more to express than poetic musings. But I can’t expect him to be like every other filmmaker out there. That’s why I love him. I love that he allows the audience to peer inside his characters’ heads. I love that he lingers on the details. I love that he is in no hurry to get to the next plot device. Malick’s brand of filmmaking reminds me of the John Keats quote in Bright Star when he is explaining the “point” of poetry:

“The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore but to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of water. You do not work the lake out, it is a experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept the mystery.”

This is Malick all the way. But this may also be part of the reason The Tree of Life was received poorly by at least half its audience, because in this Avatar-era of filmmaking, we are used to having our messages spelled out for us. Malick chose to do an ambitious film largely about life: growing up, family relationships, faith, and death. He offers little in the way of explanation, because how could he? Life is not exactly a 2 + 3 = 5 situation.

Laramie Eppler, Jessica Chastain, and Hunter McCracken in The Tree of Life

All that said, one thing most critics could agree  upon is the stunning performance by Hunter McCracken, who plays young Jack. Once again, the success of the film rests firmly in his hands, and he rises brilliantly to the occasion. What I find most impressive is that McCracken really doesn’t say much. Dialogue does not seem to be Malick’s forte, which is what I was hinting at before. No matter; we get plenty of insight into Jack’s head through his Southern-coated, pain-laden voiceovers, aching for answers he never seems to get. McCracken wanders, often stoically, through the film. You might never guess how he felt about anything unless you look into his eyes. Therein lies the true beauty of his performance. We can see in his eyes that Jack wants to love his father, does love his father, but hates him sometimes, too. We see in his eyes that he longs to be good like his brother R. L. and his mother–both characters the embodiment of Grace–and we see his frustration at the jealousy–the Nature in him–that he is desperate to suppress.  All this McCracken manages to convey beautifully, with a subtlety and–yes–grace some seasoned actors have yet to pull off.

Special mention should also go to Laramie Eppler who plays R. L. If Jack is the guiding light of the film, R. L. is certainly the heart; and Eppler plays him with an unassuming, heartbreaking tenderness. Not to mention, he looks extraordinarily like Brad Pitt who plays Father/Mr. O’Brien.

TO BE CONTINUED…

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