Film: I didn't want to make another 'hood film

Eve's Bayou is a film about an Afro-American family, but there is no oppression, no poverty, no violence. Kasi Lemmons wanted to tell it like it is
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The Independent Culture
Black female directors are a rare breed. Successful ones, more so. Kasi Lemmons, whose first feature Eve's Bayou more than qualifies her for membership of this exclusive club, has gone one step further. She's brought fresh "black experience" to white arthouse audiences.

Set in a fictional bayou in the early Sixties, Eve's Bayou portrays a flawed but likeable black middle-class family (headed by Samuel L Jackson), through the eyes of one of the twin daughters (Jurnee Smollett). Poetic and slow-burning, with its concerns of the relationship between memory and truth, Lemmons calls it a film of "gothic sensibilities", unconsciously pointing to the wider issues at hand.

With a budget of just $4m, Eve's Bayou became the most successful independent film of last year, taking $15m in the US at the box office without needing to resort to the obligatory "black" themes of oppression, poverty or violence. Rarely, it's a black art film that's about as far removed from the work of Spike Lee as you can get.

"The major difficulty in getting the film made was not that I was a woman or a first-time director. It was the material," concurs Lemmons. "It's a different kind of movie. It's hard to convince people to give you money to make an all Afro-American arthouse film. When I was pitching the idea, I invented the precedent and compared the script to films such as Waiting To Exhale, when there was really no comparison. It's really more like The Piano and Like Water For Chocolate."

Kicked around studios for a number of years (Danny Glover even wanted to direct, but Lemmons remained adamant that she must), the project only took off with the arrival of Samuel L Jackson, as actor and - for the first time in his career - producer. The tenacious Lemmons, best known for her acting abilities as Jodie Foster's room-mate in Silence of the Lambs, went with Jackson to studios with a mission in mind.

"I didn't care beyond the black audience. I thought they deserved a different kind of product to the usual fare. If the audience had been 100 per cent black, that would've been fine. But I'm thrilled it made the cross-over I predicted. What was cynical about the way people viewed Eve's Bayou was that they thought it wouldn't cross over. White people loved the script, but thought it wouldn't be seen by whites. It's very much underestimating one's own people."

With no previous successes in this field, the reaction of script-development chiefs was predictable, if disappointing. Jackson, speaking this week at the National Film Theatre, recalls: "Studios looked at the script, and said 'Who is gonna come and see this?' 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."

Nevertheless, the film was marketed very differently to black and white audiences. Lemmons recalls the distributors running two subtly different advertising campaigns, proving that such Utopian cinematic racial integration as yet is non-existent. "The black audiences responded more to a softer trailer, shots of the family; the white arthouse crowd were given one that was more generic, a dark Miller's Crossing kind of thing." The UK has got the latter, giving the appearance of a John Grisham thriller, but also indicating that black audiences elsewhere may be missed. Lemmons is convinced that countries like Brazil and South Africa could have found a coloured audience, given the right marketing. Undoubtedly, though, Eve's Bayou marks a new era for black film-making, moving away from credible, but dangerously stereotypical ghetto-central works hewed from the Boyz N The Hood school of film-making.

"I think there are a bunch of films that are exploring the Afro-American middle class, such as Love Jones and Soul Food - showing different ways of looking at family, as opposed to gang stories," says Lemmons. "They are still going to continue making 'Hood' films, but are more willing to go in a different direction and I think I've helped that. We need a variety of product in order to succeed. White audiences get this, Afro- American audiences deserve the same thing. White audiences also deserve different experience - the 'black experience' as they call it, of which there is more than one."

Claiming she's "not into propaganda", Lemmons calls for black film-makers to present all forms of experience. Her film is inspired by childhood trips to Louisiana. "I wanted to write a story about people who were like royalty in a small town. Louisiana has a unique history in the US. It was one of the only places where slaves could buy their freedom. Even in the 1700s, there were free people of colour, who had citizenship; because the State was owned by the French."

Convinced to write by her therapist, who advised her to avoid the annual pilot shown season that most LA actors endure, Eve's Bayou emerged from characters and a fictional locale that Lemmons had carried with her through short stories, and even a short film, Dr Hugo. Encouraged by her actor- writer-director husband Vondie Curtis Hall (who was behind last year's Gridlock'd, and features in both of his wife's directorial efforts), Lemmons pulled what she has always referred to as just a "purely creative experience - something I needed to do" from the drawer.

"I was aiming to explore the way adults looked at me when I was a child," she says. "My family and their friends were all people of colour who were extremely beautiful. It was a middle-class coloured society that had a certain aesthetic and lifestyle. You look at photos, and they looked like movie stars. I felt it was important to explore this deep glamour."

Brought up in St. Louis by her academic parents (father a biologist, mother a psychologist), Lemmons "did the struggling actor thing" in her twenties, spending years in acting classes at the Lee Strasbourg Institute and the Circle in the Square before enrolling in film at New York's New School for Social Research. Her "first love", acting, brought her parts as Nicolas Cage's victim in Vampire's Kiss and Virginia Madsen's co-investigator in Candyman. It was during this period that she first met Jackson.

Lemmons, who claims even when he wasn't there Jackson's "spirit [read: industry clout] remained with me in the room" when facing executives, is set to work again with him. Her next project is Caveman's Valentine, the story of a paranoid homeless composer who lives in a cave on the edge of Manhattan, with Jackson set to take the central role. Meanwhile, The Impersonator, a psycho-sexual thriller written with her husband (with him in line to direct) awaits the green light, as do a host of scripts written by Lemmons for Michelle Pfeiffer, Julia Roberts and Whitney Houston. Though admitting she has not given up on acting, Lemmons appears more gratified working behind the camera at the moment, something she achieved on Eve's Bayou, having just given birth to a baby.

"It was insane. Usually I would hold the baby in rehearsal, then hand her over to someone else while shooting. Vondie would fly over from LA, where he was editing Gridlock'd, and play Daddy for a while."

Eve's Bayou is released on 14 August