In this day and age, numerous Black horror films tell Black stories and push the boundaries of horror. Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Nia DaCosta’s Candyman, and Mariama Diallo’s Master have all done so. However, without Kasi Lemmons’ 1997 classic Eve’s Bayou, these films may not be here today. This movie effortlessly blends Black culture with Southern mysticism and gothic horror themes to create a piece of work we still revere decades later.
The ’90s gave birth to numerous works from numerous Black directors. Spike Lee gave us Malcolm X; John Singleton gave us Boyz in the Hood; and Theodore Witcher gave us Love Jones. But In 1997, Lemmons’ masterpiece Eve’s Bayou arrived on the scene. Her directorial debut brought together an all Black starring cast, featuring Jurnee Smollett, Meagan Good, Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, and Diahann Carroll (with Jackson as an executive producer).
Eve’s Bayou tells the story of the Batistes, a Black Creole family in 1960s Louisiana who appear to have it all. Status, money, and love are what the Batiste family exude, but all that glitters isn’t gold. That affluent shell breaks when 10-year-old Eve (Smollett) catches her father’s (Jackson) infidelity in the act. Paired with supernatural forces and mysticism, family secrets lead to pain and eventually, tragedy.
25 years later, the film’s importance still rings true.
Gothic horror films consist of bleak landscapes, supernatural forces that reverberate throughout the film, and a protagonist who’s haunted by an issue. Eve’s Bayou brings all of these to the table, but through the perspective of a Black Creole family in Louisiana.
At the time, this was unheard of. Black filmmakers in horror existed, as did Black-led horror films. However, the majority of these films utilized racism, poverty, and oppression as some of the “things that go bump in the night”. Eve’s Bayou centered on the everyday life of a Black family nestled in a bayou. This film lived outside of the lines of what other Black filmmakers were doing at the time.
“Studios looked at the script, and said ‘Who is gonna come and see this?’”, Jackson recounted, while speaking at the National Film Theatre. “Just because we couldn’t put a hip-hop soundtrack on it meant it wasn’t going to be Soul Food. Not every story about everyday Afro-Americans is a ‘Hood’ film. In this film, there is no mention of the political climate of the times. It could have been about any race, they just happened to be black.”
Carving her own path, Lemmons’ film became the most successful independent film of 1997. It took in $15 million on a $4 million budget. With constant rotation on televisions in the early ’00s, Eve’s Bayou’s success, impact, and relevance still echo today. “Honestly, it’s a little intimidating because it was my first film,” said Lemmons in an interview for Essence Magazine. “I always kind of want to be that free again. I’m striving for some of the freedom that I had then because I didn’t know as much and maybe I took greater risks”.
Aside from its all-Black cast, another risk came from incorporating Voodoo. While not witchcraft, but a religion with a blend of West African roots and Catholicism, Voodoo, as well as Black mysticism, have a strong presence within Eve’s Bayou.
Typically, Voodoo becomes a catchall for the different variations of this religion found in Haiti, Brazil, different countries in Africa, Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Cuba. Unfortunately, this catchall also reduces Voodoo (specifically Haitian Vodou) to a depiction that tends to weaponize, demonize, sexualize, make into a caricature, or all of the above the racist anxieties of U.S. moviegoers toward Black people. The 1932 film White Zombie was probably one of the first racist depictions of the religion. This led to the 1944 short Voodoo Devil Drums 1958 film Voodoo Village.
And while racist views skew the perspective of Voodoo and Black mysticism in the media, the women within Eve’s Bayou use both as a source of strength, support, and foresight. Diahann Carroll’s Elzora and Debbi Morgan’s Mozelle bring Voodoo into the mix as such, while Smollett’s Eve and Morgan’s Mozelle also utilize their psychic gifts to unearth the truth and to solve problems. This all seamlessly intertwines Black mysticism and religion into a generally white genre.
Thankfully, Lemmons took these risks, as they paid off tremendously. This study on trauma, forgiveness, memory, and truth was inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2018. And while the film has been on rotation in numerous Black family homes, its reach has expanded into various forms of media. References to it have appeared in everything from animated comedies like The Cleveland Show to dramas like Queen Sugar, to visual albums like Beyoncé’s Lemonade.
Lemmons’ bittersweet opus has opened doors for more Black-led films created by Black filmmakers to stand the test of time in horror. Although Eve’s Bayou centers around a Black family, it’s the women and the girls who drive the film. Through the complex narratives of Eve, Roz, Cisely, and Mozelle, the movie takes shape. The strength, vulnerability, and emotion they exude have inspired moviegoers and artists alike.
The same essence of these narratives exist freely within holistically developed Black women characters of horror films today. It led to the impressive duality of Lupita’s Adelaide/Red in Us; the emotional complexity of Regina Hall’s Dr. Gail Bishop in Master; the charismatic depth of Teyonah Parris’ Briana Cartwright in Candyman. Additionally, without Lemmons’ stunning directorial debut, who’s to say we would also have talented Black women directors like Mariama Diallo, Nia DaCosta, Misha Green, and Nikyatu Jusu highlighting Blackness in nuanced horror films?
But that’s the legacy that this film leaves behind. In a time where white-centered films dominated horror, and where Black horror films—and Black films in general—had the stigma of lesser quality, Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou creates a space for Black voices to shine. Her examination of each character should be lauded for her delicate approach to each one’s struggle on-screen.
But that’s just her strength as a director. Her screenwriting skills should be equally lauded for the nuanced dialogue and world building. They truly take you into Louisiana and into the world of the Batistes. The melancholic tone permeates throughout, testing the intricacies of family dynamics and highlighting the complexities of Black women hold. It shows they deserve a more holistic portrayal. In all, Eve’s Bayou is a trailblazing horror classic that deserves remembrance as such.