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LEMMONS, KASI: Eve's Bayou


Dancer, actress, writer, film director, Kasi Lemmons is multi talented and the critics are spellbound by her first movie as a director, Eve's Bayou, which premiered at last year's Toronto Film Festival. Lemmons spoke to PAUL FISCHER.

Kasi Lemmons is nothing if not versatile. As an actress, she appeared in such high profile films as Silence of the Lambs and the original Candyman. She's also a trained dancer and now a filmmaker. Her debut film, Eve's Bayou, which won raves following its debut at last year's Toronto Film Festival, was also one of the most successful independent films of the year. It's a remarkable achievement for the director, who wrote the original screenplay. The film initially took shape as a novel, which might account for its literary style. "It's true that I thought about making it into a novel, and I started to write it, then chickened out and ended up writing it as a screenplay", she adds laughingly. "But it WAS an experiment with a literary form, because when I wrote it, I wasn't writing it for anyone to see; it was an experiment of MINE, using a more literary form of screenwriting."

"it's also distinctly personal"

The film's central character is ten-year-old Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), a wise and observant child, who is reasonably fond of her 14-year-old sister, Cisely (Meagan Good), and 9-year-old brother, Poe (real-life brother Jake Smollett). She adores her beautiful mother, Roz (Lynn Whitfield), and her physician father, Louis (Samuel L. Jackson, who also co-produced the film). But things are not as perfect as Eve would like to think. Though basically good at heart, Louis is a ferocious womaniser, a fact that is not lost on the perpetually wounded Roz. He also lavishes an undue amount of attention on Cisely, at least in Eve's jealous eyes. There's also Louis' sister, Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), a beautiful, exotic but childless woman who has buried three husbands and who has such a clear take on the future that people pay her to tell their fortunes or conjure up images of missing loved ones. In so doing, Mozelle comes into direct competition with the frightening Elzora (Diahann Carroll), a local priestess who tends to throw out deadly curses with great regularity.

Lemmons says that apart from the film's literary tone, her other inspiration was opera. "I was trying to write a classically structured opera, to be spoken." Yet it's also distinctly personal, partly inspired, she adds, by her grandmother's house in Alabama. Lemmons was raised in St Louis, Missouri, yearning to be an actress. She began her professional career playing a hostage in the TV-movie 11th Victim (1979), directed by Jonathan Kaplan. She then took several years off to study with The Lee Strasberg Institute, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Centre and the famed mime Marcel Marceau. She did all this, especially her dance training, as "an extension of my acting. I started acting as a child, and I always thought I'd be a serious actress, which is what I'd hoped for.

"everything was an offshoot of being an actress"

"So I started dancing to improve my acting. I was never a great dancer, but everything was an offshoot of being an actress." Her extensive training paid off and she enjoyed a varied career as an actress. But last year marked a turning point for Lemmons. Having always wanted to be a writer, she had spent several years nurturing a script about a young girl's coming of age in the South. When it came time to film the script, Lemmons put herself in contention as director. She fashioned a 20-minute short, Dr. Hugo, starring her husband , actor-director Vondie Curtis Hall, as an audition piece and convinced the producers to allow her to direct her own script. The result, what Lemmons has called "an African American Southern Gothic", was Eve's Bayou, a well-acted, critically praised mood piece that heralds a new and exciting voice in films. It has won major awards, including the National Board of Review Award for Best Debut by a Director, and the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. All this, despite the fact that she's Afro-American, young and female. All of which can prove to be an obstacle. "It's hard enough getting a film off the ground, any film, but obviously my sex and ethnicity didn't help."

Eventually, however, with Samuel L. Jackson on board as both star and co-producer, Lemmons' dream became a reality and Eve's Bayou was shot - albeit on a minuscule budget. "Obviously, we had to make a lot of hard choices to keep the film under budget, but I think the movie has a visual look that doesn't spell out its budgetary constraints." It's also one of the few film to examine the black experience from a middle-class perspective "which I think gives audiences a different insight into the Afro-American experience."

'Hey baby, wanna be in my movie?'

Lemmons enjoyed directing her husband, Chicago Hope regular, Curtis-Hall. "It was great to have him do it. All I had to do was call out: 'Hey baby, wanna be in my movie?'

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