Black girls often get erased in Hollywood. There have been few instances like Spike Lee’s 1994 film Crooklyn or the forthcoming Marsai Martin-produced movie, Little that have centered Black girls. With her 1997 directional debut, Eve’s Bayou filmmaker Kasi Lemmons blew the lid off of a new type of storytelling by honing in on the perspective of a young Black girl. Set in lavish Louisiana in the 1960s, Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou follows 10-year-old Eve Batiste, a tenacious and curious young Black girl who chronicles the summer of her father’s death. When the film was released, its story and cast— including Jurnee Smollett, Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Witfield, Debbie Morgan, Meagan Good, and Diahann Carroll— got glowing reviews. It became the highest-grossing indie film of that year.
Twenty-two years later, we are still celebrating the film’s success and legacy. At a recent special screening of Eve’s Bayou in partnership with The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science at the Metrograph in New York City—Shadow and Act spoke with Lemmons and acclaimed film editor Teri Shropshire about the journey to make the film, what it represents today and Lemmons’s upcoming Harriet Tubman biopic.
“Eve’s Bayou began as a series of short stories, and the children were the first layers in the short stories,” Lemmons revealed. “Gradually, I came to realize that it was about me, but I don’t think I realized that at first. It wasn’t strictly autobiographical or anything like that. However, in some ways, I was processing my childhood and fixing my own things that happened to me—things that I was still wrestling with. It was a form of therapy, honestly. At the core of Eve, it’s me and my childhood and wrestling with how powerful I was as a child. How did I fight my way through uncomfortable situations and the distress that I felt?”
Love & Basketball editor Terilyn Shropshire was drawn to Lemmons’ script because she also saw herself and family reflected in Eve and the Batiste clan. “When I read Kasi’s script, it was almost as if an amazing sunrise came on,” Shropshire remembered. “I had grown up with these women —but I had never seen them on film. When I read the script, I saw my aunt and I saw my mother. I felt like my responsibility was to honor our mothers and our aunts and our uncles and all these people who were lovely, glamorous and divine. People often ask me about my editing style, but as an editor, you don’t have a style. The material gives you the style. The material tells you the rhythm. The script had a certain rhythm to it, so my responsibility was to allow it to be what it was supposed to be.”
When Lemmons was given the green light to make Eve’s Bayou, she was determined to make the best film she possibly could —however she did not know just how much the film would be adored and embraced.
“One of the things that I love about filmmaking is that you can only try and be great at it,” Lemmons reflected. “There’s no perfecting it because that’s subjective. But it’s something you’re reaching for. For me, the success of Eve’s Bayou gave me the courage to keep reaching and keep trying to think outside the box and not be intimidated. I often think that I was very brave then — it was a very brave move. If I’d known too much about Hollywood, I might not have done it.”
Eve’s Bayou was also Shropshire’s first turn as lead editor, an opportunity that propelled her into other collaborations with Lemmons: 2007’s Talk to Me as well as 2012’s Sparkle, Jumping the Broom, Diary of A Mad Black Woman and countless others. “What I’ve learned is that you trust your instincts and you also welcome perspective,” she explained. “Working with Kasi allowed me to be my most creative self. I was never tempered so it gave me a certain confidence. She trusts me. If I go a direction that maybe she didn’t expect, it’s either something that’s discovery, or there’s something there to hold me back. The whole idea is to allow the people that you’re working with to show you the best of themselves creatively. I learned that so clearly with her, and everything I have learned, I’ve taken with me on to other things.”
In 2018 —over twenty years after the film first debuted—the Library of Congress selected Eve’s Bayou for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It was a watershed moment for Lemmons who was in the midst of her latest Black woman-centered film: Harriet. “There’s a certain amount of appropriate excitement that you’re supposed to have; I was excited beyond that,” Lemmons laughed. “Really, it means so much to me. In the letter they sent to me they called the film a national treasure. I burst into tears. It’s amazing that some little film that you gave your blood, sweat, and tears for 22 years ago would be considered a national treasure that’s worthy of being preserved and being talked about with such films as My Fair Lady and The Godfather. It’s really kind of incredible.”
Shropshire was equally blown away by the induction. “We often talk about the notion, ‘our legacy,'” she explained. “The reality is that we all have a personal legacy that defines our history and our future. Then we have our professional life. It’s the choices that we make, the films that we contribute to. You don’t chase those things, but when you give them acknowledgment, it says that you know you’re doing something right and you’re reaching to be rare. I am so grateful that long after I’m gone, there will be a record of us.”
When it comes to the Black American experience, neither Shropshire nor Lemmons are done displaying our stories through cinema and television. The Secret Life of Bees editor is currently putting the finishing touches on Episode 1 of Ava DuVernay’s Central Park Five mini-series. Meanwhile, Lemmons is in post-production for the Cynthia Erivo-led, Harriet. “There was a time that I first heard about somebody wants to make a movie about Harriet Tubman, and I was intimidated by it,” Lemmons recalled. “I was like, ‘Oh, God, good luck to them.’ Then about a year or so later I went into a meeting that I thought was a general meeting because my agent tricked me. I think I came to realize within a short amount of time that I was probably being considered for the movie and that this is actually this is what I’m supposed to be doing right now. But the real magic for me was that I was given an opportunity to rewrite the script. That was so powerful. It was compelling, and I’m thrilled I did it.”
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic and entertainment writer. As a journalist, her work has been published in EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide