Hailed as the best film of 1997 by Roger Ebert, Kasi Lemmons' "Eve’s Bayou" has solidified its role as one of the most successful independent films in American cinema. A coming-of-age story set against the Southern beauty of 1960's Louisiana, the film garnered praise among arthouse lovers and cinephiles alike. “Eve’s Bayou” continues to garner acclaim, including a selection for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant” by the Library of Congress and inclusion in Ebertfest in 2016. 22 years later, the film and the filmmaker’s contributions might be framed as catalysts for a significant shift within independent film. In "Eve’s Bayou," Lemmons created a story and visual that centered the experiences of black women and girls. Those visions made space for future black women filmmakers within the independent genre.
In the late '80s and through the late '90s Hollywood seemed to embrace the wave of black talent in cinema who was breaking new ground in both politics and subject matter. Early influencers include recent Academy Award winner Spike Lee and Academy Award nominee John Singleton. Then, "Eve’s Bayou" debuted in 1997, directed & written by a black woman, and released as an independent film. This work created new realms of possibility for black women and girls on screen. The story explored black spiritual & cultural folklore, intermingling the material and spiritual worlds. The film depicted them as complicated individuals, masterful storytellers, and magical realists. Lemmons’ story privileged the experience of a black girl as told by a black girl—something that simply wasn't seen on-screen at the time. "Eve’s Bayou" continues to be celebrated as a film directed by a Black woman which not only achieved critical and financial success, but did so without compromising its cultural integrity.
Lena Waithe recently offered a thoughtful exploration of Blackness in Hollywood as a trend in her article for Time, holding firm in her belief that we are in the midst of another Black Renaissance. I agree with Waithe’s assessment and have been privileged to watch black creators, old and new, continually revitalize black stories.
Despite the difficulty of black women in film, Lemmons' success has created a long-lasting ripple effect on black independent women filmmakers today. Like Lemmons' film, Nijla Mu’min’s 2018 "Jinn" mixes faith with generational conflict, centering on a fraught mother-daughter relationship. Mu’min presents Islam, a religion too often marginalized in the Western media, as a compassionate faith and the women who practice it as resilient and independent. As a compelling work, "Jinn" is reminiscent of Lemmons' seminal film by depicting black life and spirituality with a depth and complexity rarely seen on film.
Consider Sierra Leonean-Lebanese-American filmmaker Nikyatu Jusu’s short, "Suicide By Sunlight," which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The enthralling and strikingly shot film turns the spotlight on a black female vampire. Invigorated by the work of Octavia Butler, this story is grounded in an appreciation of black people—the cultural history of vampires in the African Diaspora and the protective characteristics of melanin. Similar to "Eve’s Bayou," this film incorporates fantasy in many ways, but the authenticity makes it easily convincing.
Additionally, Numa Perrier’s highly anticipated "Jezebel" premieres next week at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Based on true story, "Jezebel" is another coming-of-age tale—the story of a black girl entering into the complications of womanhood. Exploring the seedy world of internet fetish cams, the film follows a pair of young black sisters who explore and exploit their sexuality using the fantasy world of online sex work as an escape from their challenging realities. In the same spirit of the female-dominated "Eve’s Bayou," the women are sexually autonomous, allowed to explore their sexuality in uncomfortable ways while trying to navigate the difficult transitions of adolescences and adulthood.
Many onscreen representations of Black women and girls remain scarce or stereotypical, but "Eve’s Bayou" was a catalyst for giving audiences narratives of race and culture without overt political machinations. Instead, the film and those that follow root themselves in the experiences of nuanced black women protagonists with whom black women audiences could identify. Kasi Lemmons created a film which opened doors, allowing black independent women filmmakers to venture on the edge of awakenings, creating rich and complex stories with no responsibility other than to create unrestricted, carefree, Black art.