In “Back to Cool,” the 20th episode of The Cleveland Show’s second season, there is what may be the only casual joke about director Kasi Lemmons’ film Eve’s Bayou that’s ever been made in television history. The joke’s about how often the movie airs on TV and the thing that makes it funny is how accurate it is.
In a single day, the elder Cleveland Brown explains to his wife Donna, he’s watched Eve’s Bayou three separate times in between eating, napping, and bathing. Donna’s too busy to be bothered with Cleveland’s story—Eve’s Bayou is on again and she’s trying to watch it. If you lived in a black household with cable television at any point in the early ‘00s, then you’ve had some version of that specific conversation, because for a while, it felt like Eve’s Bayou was on television nonstop, particularly on lazy weekend afternoons.
There was something about the 1997 film’s complicated, mystical story that lent itself to repeated viewings that always began at random points whenever you happened to click onto the right station. Even if you’ve never watched Eve’s Bayou from start to finish in one sitting, the way that the film aired and re-aired for years meant that it was possible to passively glean information about it while channel surfing, which is magical in its own way. Even now, 20 years after its theatrical release, there’s a lasting power to Eve’s Bayou that makes it one of the most important fantasy films in recent history.
Eve’s Bayou is the story of the Batistes, a Creole family living in Louisiana, that’s rocked by the youngest daughter Eve’s (Jurnee Smollett) discovery that her father Louis (Samuel L. Jackson) is having an affair with a family friend. As Eve struggles to make sense of her father’s infidelity, her family’s put further on edge by a series of separate, but interconnected events that reflect the internal turmoil they’re all struggling with. Eve’s mother Roz (Lynn Whitfield) has suspicions about her husband, but she’s also preoccupied with a prophecy told by her spiritual sister Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), who foresees that a child will die outside of their home somewhere within their community.
Magic, spirituality, and the imperfection of memory are three of the larger ideas that shape the story that Eve’s Bayou is trying to tell—one that’s chiefly concerned with exploring the way that a nuclear family can rot from within without telegraphing its woes until it’s too late. In Mozelle, Eve finds both refuge and a unique kind of kinship because both of them share the “second sight”—a loosely-defined kind of psychic ability that allows them to see into the past and future alike.
Like almost every fictional child who learns he or she has supernatural abilities, Eve is simultaneously fascinated and frightened by her revelations, and the way that Mozelle chooses to begin teaching Eve more about their shared talent is both honest and at times painful to watch. For all her gifts, Mozelle (accurately) believes that she is cursed to inadvertently kill any man she marries. She presents this to Eve with a matter-of-factness that says, “This is the reality of what it means to be women like us.” Mozelle is both blessed and cursed; while the circumstances of Eve’s personal demons are somewhat different, in time, she comes to understand that every member of the Batiste family is fated to give up a pound of flesh in their own way.
Eve’s Bayou can be a number of different films depending on when and where you begin to watch it. Sitting in a theater and watching it from open to close gives you a grand tale about a crumbling family that’s infused with a Southern kind of magical realism. But randomly happening upon it a third of the way though, when Eve’s mother confines the Batiste children to their home out of fear that they might die, turns the film into an almost Stephen King-like exercise in how obsessive fear can curdle love into something toxic and terrifying. There is also a way to see the film as an explicit and at times difficult-to-watch exploration of sexuality, and the ways in which stifling one’s desires inevitably leads to self-ruin, pain, and heartbreak.
As easy as it may be to poke fun at Eve’s Bayou for its storied run in syndication, the movie’s long tail on television legitimately adds something to the viewing experience. Eve’s Bayou could air three times over the next week and with each viewing, you would be able to see an almost entirely different film. That’s magical in and of itself.