A 10-Year-Old Murderer Propels a Nervy Debut Film

Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou marks the latest happy occasion to celebrate a sparkling directorial debut. For all the loose talk about the death of the cinema, I cannot recall any time since the 60′s when so much American creative talent erupted on the screen in such a short time span. Yet to hail Ms. Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou as the best African-American film ever, as one may be understandably inclined to do, would be to understate its universal accessibility to anyone on this planet with the slightest involvement in the painful experience of family life.

For a first film, Eve’s Bayou is an unusually nervy entertainment, blessed or cursed with the audacity to create a family, indeed, a community of Creole descendants, for whom economic issues are of little consequence in the spiritual, mystical and even voodoo-driven trajectory of their individual destinies. These are a proud, passionate and, at times, violent people, but they are never sleazy or sordid.

The film begins with a Spanish-mossy swampscape drifting before our eyes as a mature voice beings to tell the story, shifting from the preciously abstract to the shockingly concrete: “Memory is a selection of images. Some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain. The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old.…” From this point on, Ms. Lemmons has us in the grip of her bold narrative, told from the point of view of 10-year-old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), a bewitching child with a repertory of sly expressions that make her capable of anything, even murder. But she is never cute or charming. For a point-of-view character, she is disconcertingly more a verb than a noun, more active than passive. Through her darting eyes, the rest of her family springs to life. Eve watches enviously as her roguishly charming father Louis Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson) proudly dances with her teenage sister Cisely (Meagan Good), who is visibly transfigured by the experience. To make matters worse, her bespectacled younger brother Poe (Jake Smollett) is clearly the favorite of their elegant mother Roz (Lynn Whitfield). But we know already that Eve will survive these childhood slights and will be able to look back at everyone around her with insight and compassion. One day she will be able to understand why her father exploited his medical practice to cheat on her mother with other women, none as beautiful nor as stylish as his neglected wife. But for the moment, Eve reacts impulsively to her emotional setbacks without asking or getting our unconditional pity or sympathy after her bizarre “confession” at the outset. Besides, she soon makes it clear that she adores her older sister, despite their rivalry for father’s affections, and she has a playfully loving relationship with her little brother as well. So how and why did she do it?

Indeed, there is a dreamlike enchantment to the Batiste family even as it approaches its traumatic crisis in the midst of a languid Louisiana summer. The endlessly curious and restless Eve opens a new treasure-trove of feeling with her frequent visits to her aunt Mozelle Batiste Delacroix (Debbi Morgan), a thrice-married widow who believes she has been a curse to her loving husbands. Her guilt has endowed her with “second sight” as a “psychic counselor” for the other troubled women in the parish. Mozelle’s only professional rival in the community is the pathetically crass and transparently self-mocking Elzora (Diahann Carroll), a practitioner of voodoo with carnival trappings. The enmity between Mozelle and Elzora is somehow woven into an intricate narrative in which Eve-jealous and angry at her father’s sexual promiscuity and what she suspects is his sexual abuse of her sister-evolves as a poltergeist who sets a series of events in motion, resulting in her “killing” of her father.

Ms. Lemmons does not cheat her ending with false sentiment or last-second redemption. The characters follow the preordained logic of their passions to complete the circle of the narrative. Ms. Lemmons falters only when she almost neutralizes the grieving rapport achieved by Eve and Cisely in the last shots by pulling the camera back to fulfill the esthetic mandate of the opening narration.

As spellbinding as Ms. Lemmons’ contemplation of the blessed bayou may be, it would have been tedious in a feature-length film without the fully fleshed characterizations of a seemingly seamless cast, including Ethel Ayler’s Gran Mere and Vondie Curtis-Hall’s Julian Grayraven, the last love of Mozelle’s life, along with Ms. Morgan, Mr. Jackson, Ms. Whitfield and Ms. Carroll as the groping adults, and Ms. Smollett, Ms. Good and Master Smollett as the mixed-up children. After the film was over, I was startled to discover that it was not based on a novel, but was the product of a purely cinematic imagination, amazingly accompanied by a full range of novelistic nuances and storytelling skills, some going back to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927). My only worry is that Eve’s Bayou may not find its maximum audience, despite its critical raves, because the art-house audience may suspect the puffery of political correctness, while the inner city first-week crowd may prefer the stimulation of giant cockroaches and such. All I can do is assure my readers that Eve’s Bayou should be seen not for its message, but for its magic.

A Film About Television News(11)Is Not Necessarily News

Constantin Costa-Gavras’ Mad City , from a screenplay by Tom Matthews, based on a story by Mr. Matthews and Eric Williams, has been described as a loose remake of Billy Wilder’s The Big Carnival (1951), a well-remembered commercial flop when it first came out despite its desperation-induced change of title from the original and more intelligently idiomatic Ace in the Hole . There is one big difference between Mad City and The Big Carnival : television. Too much of it today, and hardly any of it back in 1951. Mr. Wilder was simply ahead of his time back then, when he was attacked by our foremost contrarian critic, Manny Farber, for caricaturing the sensation-seeking public still literate enough to be galvanized by newspaper headlines generated by wire-service copy. The proliferation of television since then has enabled the mob to sit more comfortably in the nation’s living rooms and taverns as it is fed the latest ghoulish tidbit.

Dustin Hoffman’s television reporter Max Brackett in Mad City bears more than a passing resemblance to the Kirk Douglas newspaper reporter in The Big Carnival . Both men have been exiled to the hinterlands after offending their bosses in the big city. Both men stretch out a disaster story that falls into their laps to regain their old positions and prestige. Both men are consumed by guilt when their subjects die needlessly.

But there are significant differences as well. Most important, The Big Carnival was close to the beginning of the media-bashing movie cycle that has since been represented by A Face in the Crowd (1957), Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975) Network (1976), Quiz Show (1994), Natural Born Killers (1994), not to mention Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990), with William Atherton as a hissable media vulture. Mr. Atherton appears in a more neutral newscasting role in Mad City and is less hateful than Alan Alda’s oily network anchor Kevin Hollander, an Ed Murrow wannabe with the soul of a weasel. By now, however, Mad City seems to have been outpaced by television’s daily excesses in the truly mad pursuit for ratings.

That is not to say The Big Carnival was anything new in bashing headline-hungry reporters, what with such movie predecessors as The Front Page (1931) and Five-Star Final (1931). What Mad City can claim as its own contribution to the genre is a sharply pointed suggestion of widespread populist malaise over the insidiously rationalized practice of downsizing workers to “improve” efficiency, productivity and, as a whispered byproduct, corporate profits.

John Travolta’s Sam Baily is a fired $8-an-hour museum guard who takes a rifle and some dynamite to a small-town natural history museum as the means to force his employer, Mrs. Banks (Blythe Danner), to rehire him. Sam is a muddled, unstable, inarticulate spokesman for the presumably unheard lower-middle class, and is easily manipulated by Max’s liberal sophistries. Mr. Costa-Gavras and his scenarists seem to want to have it every which way, with Max playing it by turns cynically and moralistically, and Sam overdoing the Cro-Magnon bit in an age when the lowliest TV-watcher conducts a never-ending talk show in his head.

Robert Prosky tries to hold the line for morality as Max’s small-station boss, but his voice is drowned out in the din of greed and expediency. When the big network enters the scene, we are treated to the deceitful facility of lying through sound and image editing. There are a few jabs at hypocritically motivated political correctness; cultural nonprofit institutions that self-righteously underpay their employees; and omnipresent polling services. The most interesting and strikingly original performance is that of Mia Kirshner in the role of Laurie, a dewy-eyed, flirtatiously smiling station intern who jumps at the chance to let Max show her the ropes, and then treacherously betrays him when a bigger opportunity presents itself in the network power of Kevin Hollander. Laurie has learned Max’s lessons in dog-eats-dog too well. All in all, Mad City is a lively entertainment, but hardly the shocking revelation the current, jaded marketplace demands.