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.
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 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 Food, which 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.
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.
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…