From the opening voice-over — “The summer I killed my father, I was 10 years old” — writer-director Kasi Lemmons‚ debut film weaves a spell of magnolia and menace. The 10-year-old is Eve (Jurnee Smollett), second daughter of Dr. Louis Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson) and his elegant wife Roz (Lynn Whitfield). Louis pushes charm as much as pills, and the local ladies swoon at his touch. “To a certain type of woman,” he notes, “I am a hero. I need to be a hero.” Eve and her 14-year-old sister Cisely (Meagan Good) need him to be one too, and when he proves a sinner, they are devastated. His crime may have been that he didn’t dance with Eve or that he danced too close to Cisely. But since Aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) tells fortunes, Eve is a voodoo priestess once removed. Her curse on her daddy could be fatal.
In rural Louisiana in the ’60s, and in the humid swamps of the Southern Gothic imagination, tenderness and terror are first cousins destined to marry. Eve’s Bayou showed writer-director Kasi Lemmons invading Faulkner-McCullers territory and made it her own. This is a woman’s film, and a showcase for superb actresses, with Morgan outstanding as a sorceress whose gift runs away with her. There are a few visual and character cliches, and we wish that, just once in movies, a fortune teller’s dire prophecy would not automatically come true. But the folks here believe in its power, and they compel the viewer to abandon skepticism, to hide with Eve in the Batiste closet, where skeletons whisper vengeance. An indelible tale of childhood wonder and terror, and one of the finest works by a black filmmaker, Eve’s Bayou has a fierce poise that left me grateful, exhausted and nourished. For the restless spirit, here is true soul food.