Film: Dixie Sham

As a Southerner, I view movies set in the South with fear and trembling. Whatever else the South is, it ain’t New York or California, and this is a problem for filmmakers with those mindsets. Hollywood schizophrenics see the South as either the sinister homeland of tobacco-chewing Kluxers or a lawsamercy wonderland of delicious mystery, swooning romanticism, and Sugarbaker sassiness. Both views contain elements of truth—most clichés do—but they are hard to watch even if, as in the candy-coated film version of Steel Magnolias, the depiction is meant to be flattering to Dixie.

By now you will have read every Yankee reviewer in the country offering loud hosannas to Eve’s Bayou, a small, independent drama about one fateful summer in the life of a south Louisiana black family. Don’t you believe them. It’s just a blackface version of the same old magnolia-mouth hooey. Reading all the gushing praise from people who really think this contrived junk has anything to do with actual life in Louisiana, I thought, ah, these are the kinds of people we sold feathers to.

A digression: My hometown is on the Mississippi River, just north of Baton Rouge, and every spring it hosts a pilgrimage that draws thousands of tourists eager to take in plantation homes, pecan pies, and other vestiges of the Old South. My father takes a dim view of both the tourists and the ladies of the historical society who flutter around town in hoop skirts that weekend. One year, when my sister and I were children, Daddy set us up on a street corner downtown with a card table and three rows of wild turkey feathers harvested from an unfortunate bird he had killed during the season. “Genuine Audubon Feathers” said the sign Daddy made (John James Audubon used to live in my town, and in death has loaned his name to everything there, including, hand to God, the package liquor store). To the great consternation of the hoop-skirted hens, and the great amusement of my father, my sister and I sold every feather we had to denizens of Flint, Providence, and Redondo Beach, who were eager to pay absurd prices for a little piece of Southern history.

Beware Eve’s Bayou: It’s a feather-selling scam designed to rook Yankees and Californians, who will probably reward it with an Oscar nomination or two.

Writer-director Kasi Lemmons sets the film in the ’50s, in a fictional south Louisiana village named Eve’s Bayou, after the slave woman whose descendants, the Batistes, populate the town. Dr. Louis Batiste (Samuel L. Jackson) appears to be the scion of the current prosperous generation, and the master of a gorgeous house under moss-draped oaks: the whole megillah. He’s a charming rogue with a beautiful wife (Lynn Whitfield) and lovely children, but one who won’t curtail his tomcatting ways. His infidelity provokes a crisis in the family, where Mrs. Batiste draws her children close one summer, terrified something will happen to them. Young Eve (Jurnee Smollett) is on to her father, having caught him canoodling a buxom wench in the toolshed, and consults a voodoo priestess (Diahann Carroll in pancake make-up) hoping spell-casting will make Daddy behave. But messing with the dark side has unforeseen consequences for the family, a tragic result telegraphed by the film’s first line, in which an adult Eve, in voiceover narration, says the summer she was ten, she killed her father. By the time this movie comes to an end, we’ve dealt with patricide, incest, voodoo, adultery, and all manner of ersatz Southern Gothickry, not to mention Carroll’s atrocious accent.

Carroll acts like a suburban mom playing fortune teller at the church Halloween carnival. Unless you can buy the idea that scraggly, camp-dwelling voodoo hags have swell diction, Carroll merely looks like some luckless eccentric who spent too long getting patted down at the Clinique counter. Much has been made of young Miss Smollett’s energetic turn as Eve, and while she certainly is a bright actress of great potential, she’s far too contemporary and California-ized to play a Creole bayou child of a generation ago. She’s supposed to be a Batiste, not a Huxtable.

The true blarney here, though, comes with the character Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), Louis’s thrice-widowed sister who moves in to support his wife during the summer of her discontent. Mozelle is a luscious Jezebel just aching for a man. She’s given to delivering unintentionally campy monologues to an unseen lover, while standing on the verandah looking sultry and ripe.

“Let us eat pomegranates till our hands turn red, and spend our time licking the juice off,” she says, to no one in particular. When her dream man shows up—I kid you not—on a dark and stormy night, it’s not Stanley Kowalski (who might have straightened this lunatic movie out), but actor Vondie Curtis Hall in a fright wig. He introduces himself as, get this, Julian Grayraven. At this point, Eve’s Bayou is officially overcome with a terminal case of the vapors.

Oh well. Director Clint Eastwood comes closer to verisimilitude with his film version of John Berendt’s runaway bestseller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Eastwood is a far more restrained director than Kasi Lemmons will ever be, and he’s got too much taste to let the story slip into magnolia-mouthery. Eastwood trusts the material to sell itself. Unfortunately, his somewhat stolid directorial style drags the already overlong film down in parts, particularly in the courtroom scenes, the least interesting part of the book but the ones Eastwood has chosen to emphasize.

As just about everyone knows, Midnight is a series of irresistible portraits of Savannah, Georgia, composed by a New York writer who went there in 1980 to cover a society Christmas party, fell in love with the place, and ended up staying for years. The party’s host, a tastefully decadent homosexual named Jim Williams (Kevin Spacey), ran into trouble when he ended a row with his young redneck lover by killing him. The writer, Berendt, made Williams’s hapless odyssey through the legal system a peg on which to hang his fabulous sketches of peculiar local characters and their oddball customs. The book has remained on the bestseller list for three years.

The movie will likely satisfy fans of the book, if only because Savannah is so gorgeous you can’t help adoring the film’s settings, and because we get to see not only the places where the book’s events took place, but also get to meet the book’s best character: The Lady Chablis, an shameless, irrepressible black drag queen who plays herself with appropriate vampiness here. The film soars whenever the ribald Chablis is on screen—particularly when she upsets a proper cotillion by making a grandstanding appearance in a shimmery gown. Actress Irma P. Hall plays the voodoo woman whom Williams consults in the graveyard (a.k.a., the garden of good and evil) one midnight in hopes of conjuring a positive result at his trial, and she’s appropriately cackly and frightening. Similar local color abounds, and refreshingly, Eastwood doesn’t hawk it to the tourists in the theater seats.

Unfortunately, the director is under the impression that the book’s fans really cared about the outcome of the trial. Jim Williams is not the central character in the book; Savannah is, and Eastwood’s preoccupation with narrative proves a crucial mistake. All Southerners know that the telling of a story, with all its curlicues and asides, is usually more fun than the actual facts of what happened. Too bad no one cued in Clint.

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