Echoes of Africa in To Sleep With Anger and Eve's Bayou.
Burnett gained status as a filmmaker with his 1977 UCLA (University College of Los Angeles) project Killer of Sheep, which captured the cultural wealth of poor black people powerfully enough to win the Critic's Prize at the 1981 Berlin Film Festival. So honored, Killer of Sheep became among the first 15 films placed in the Library of Congress Historic Film Registry in 1990. Burnett was a founding member of a group of film students at UCLA who fused their own fresh approaches with those of student filmmakers from Africa and South America. This Los Angeles-based group broke ground with new styles of African inspired filmic vision, with technical competence as well as sociopolitical experimentation based on a Third World sensibility. Influenced by the revolutionary imperative of Frantz Fanon's concern with the inadequate cultural representation and unequal socioeconomic circumstances of people of African origin, this group produced films manifesting a dynamic relationship between race and class struggle. Burnett also wrote and directed My Brother's Wedding (1983). He had already acted as cinematographer for his African co-student Haile Gerima on Bush Mama (1974). His work became the heart of the establishment of a new and remarkable form of poetics. This prepared the way, asserts Ntongela Masilela, for "the storm of a major work of art, Burnett's To Sleep With Anger ... a metaphorical meditation on the central pattern in African-American history ... the dialectical conflict between the old and the new" (112-13). To Armond White, "Burnett is the missing link in Black consciousness about film." He locates in the center of Burnett's films the most "important truths of living and seeing," for they "represent the highest example of contemporary Black American life put on the screen, because of Burnett's integrity to view it purely, without typical corrupted Hollywood devices" (41). Cliff Thompson reinforces this view when he argues that the characters "in Burnett's masterpiece, To Sleep With Anger (1990), come across as black and human, not necessarily in that order" (24).
Burnett himself has said that one of the main reasons he was so determined to make To Sleep With Anger was that "it is socially relevant--black people are being pulled in two different directions. They have their roots but they are being asked to forget them in favor of the aspirations of a predominantly white led society." Moreover, he wanted the universality of human emotions to be apparent in the film, "to show black people by presenting people on the screen that anyone can connect with" (Ellison). Thus, Burnett's film reflects on the metaphysical aspects of African folklore and incorporates focused visual allusions to African images: "I've seen these pictures of African women standing around a pot, they had the dresses pulled up to the hip. I was trying to get that kind of an image where she's walking around the lights. Little notions of gestures that sort of remind, that reverberate" (Sharp 7). These corporeal reverberations are eloquently embodied by the almost entirely black cast. Stage directions and Burnett's own choices in making To Sleep With Anger stipulate the use of only one white actor: a fleetingly visible pregnant woman who is foregrounded in a pre-birthing class run by Suzie, the midwife who functions as mother, and site of universal wisdom, in the multi-generational family.
Conversely, Lemmons refused to insert any white characters at all into Eve's Bayou: "No way. Not with this movie. But since making it, I've thought it really could be anyone's story. And it crossed over in an unprecedented way in the States. The audience was 50% white. It was possible to watch the film and forget the race you're watching, to see the human experience" (Charity 14). It was the most successful independent film at the US box office during the year of its release, with takings of $15 million from an investment of less than $5 million. It became one of the few films directed by a black woman to achieve critical and financial success without compromising its ethnic integrity. The awareness that this film melded widespread appeal with ethnic specificity was evident in the comments of popular critics. While a white reviewer (Andrew Sarris) wrote that "To hail Eve's Bayou as the best African American film ever would be to understate its universal applicability to anyone on this planet" (37), a black writer (Mia Mask) has remonstrated that this fails "to acknowledge the reasons for its crossover appeal" (27). It certainly commended itself to the National Board of Review, which voted it the best directorial debut of 1997, and it also received the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. To Allister Harry, "Eve's Bayou, a compelling, lyrical tale about a sophisticated middle-class African-American family in the South, is distinguished by its honest characterization of African-American women" (12). When interviewed by Harry, Lemmons straightforwardly pointed out, "I could write something about a Korean man, but the natural thing is to write about what I know. Having diverse African-American women's voices in film is not about trying to make a statement. As African-American women, we have different sensibilities. It's just the way it is" (12-13).
Reaching beyond this affirmation of gender sensibilities, one the most striking things about this film is the bond of similarity between a brother and sister. The sister of Louis Batiste is convinced that there is no meaningful psychological difference between men and women. Mozelle says several times of herself and her brother, "We are the same." This character's pronouncement does not, of course, mean that Lemmons understands masculine and feminine roles in either African or American society to have been, or to be, interchangeable, but Eve's Bayou does challenge traditional gender delineations and stereotypes, and it suggests that contemporary US-born black women have the kind of power that their foremothers once exercised in Africa. Lemmons thus analyzes the diversity within as well as between gender roles, and to do so she relies on her own experiences. She has said that she sees herself in 10-year-old Eve (played by Jurnee Smollett), who is determined to comprehend both relationships among her family members and also the complexities of her African cultural heritage. Lemmons acknowledges the importance that she attaches to Eve's role as storyteller, to Eve's relating the tale of her family's past from the dual perspectives of a questioning child and a reflective woman. She is fulfilling the role that African women were often entrusted to fill, as guardians and re-interpreters of memory and knowledge. Lemmons has said that she feels strongly that "folklore is the legacy of power handed down from woman to woman" (Muhammed 75). Some of the grown women in the film not only act as storytellers but also as conjure women whose psychic abilities can change developments and perceptions. To Ann Ogidi, Eve "is a seeker of truth, but the truth she finds is as elusive as a phantom and as deceptive as a conjurer's trick" (18).
Writing before Eve's Bayou was filmed, Manthia Diawara declared Burnett one of the rare directors making films in which "there is no manipulation of the look to bring the spectator to a passive state of uncritical identification" (219). In each of his films, the cinematic gaze constantly shifts perspective and focus, provoking the viewer into engaging in active questioning of all the behavioral patterns and African resonances saturating the screen. Lemmons achieves a similar effect, having fought, she says, to pace Eve's Bayou slowly enough to reflect life in Africa as well as life in the US South: "It became very important for me to let people move through time and space, and I got in a lot of horrible fights about the pace of the movie. Some people say it's slow" (Coaston 12). In fact, the film gradually unfolds the co-existence of different realities and contradictory emotions within an arguably languorous frame. Producer Caldecott Chubb was drawn to the project by the way it made a nonhegemonic culture so personally engaging: "it took me to a place I'd never been, a culture that I'd never seen or known ... it moved me deeply" (Pride 44).
Both Burnett and Lemmons use film to explore the specificity of Africanisms within the context of human universal as well as American experiences and social norms. That this exploration can disrupt as well as dislocate is hardly surprising. The very title of "To Sleep With Anger," Burnett has explained, "comes from the saying 'never go to bed angry.' But the people in this film have lived with their frustrations not just for a night, but for years" (Sharp 4). In To Sleep With Anger, frustration is given an extreme embodiment in the form of Baby Brother (played by Richard Brooks), the youngest child of a Mississippi couple who long ago migrated to Los Angeles. He is so confused about his identity, so torn between the fundamental values of his African heritage and his capitalist American aspirations that he is susceptible to the machinations of a soul-trapping trickster. His vulnerability is compounded by the vehemence with which his upwardly mobile wife rejects traditional black vernacular values, including any interest in his parents. Unable to adapt his family's Africanisms to his personal urban ambitions, his consciousness "doubles" in a searingly Du Boisian way; the character manifests the archetypal African American dilemma of "two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body" (Du Bois 15479), in a psychologically tormented black individual. In contrast, Baby Brother's elder brother, Junior (played by Carl Lumbly), and his pregnant wife, Pat (played by Vonette McGee), seem somehow to have balanced and harmonized these potentially destructive dualities. They deftly intertwine the African and American elements in their lives into a functional belief system that cushions cultural encounters.
Most of the members of the family central to Eve's Bayou have also managed to reconcile the otherwise "warring ideals" of the Du Boisian double consciousness. Although there are no "white" characters in Lemmons's directorial debut, it is made very clear from the start that the entire community is the product of the relationship of the white general Jean Paul Batiste and his African slave called Eve. For saving his life with her vast knowledge of African healing when he was struck with cholera, the general gave Eve the land on which Eve's Bayou was built. Out of "gratitude," the legend continues, she bore him 16 children; their descendants carry his name as well as his genes. Implications of any sexual violation in this theoretically illegal familial relationship remain unspoken, and would even have seemed redundant in Louisiana, where offspring of interracial relationships were often protected and formalized within and beyond systems such as "placage," which gave societal approval to neo-marriage liaisons between African American women and white men. Such was indeed the basis of Louisiana's unique acceptance of "Creoles of Color" as respectable members of genteel society. Yet that acceptance was always partial and often had unexpected ramifications. As Rueschmann suggests, "Lemmons dramati[z]es how this ancestral knowledge complicates and disturbs the middle-class world of the contemporary Batiste family" (93). The Batiste family was part of what seemed to be an extraordinarily independent and discretely cushioned community, but its setting in the kind of swampladen bayou where slaves sought refuge from slavery disrupts its superficial calm.
The Batiste family is visually as well as culturally mixed. Louis Batiste (played by Samuel L. Jackson), has dark brown hair and skin, while his wife, Ros (Lynn Whitfield), has light brown skin and hair, but two of their three children have tawny skin and remarkably red hair just like Louis's sister, Mozelle. African and white aspects of cultural mores and appearances seem balanced in this film specifically in music, dance, and movement styles within the Batiste household. The film opens with a party during which dance styles change fluidly from sensual neo-African to precisely choreographed zydeco. The house is elegantly furnished with an orderly French sophistication that belies the primeval sexual turmoil and emotional rage that threaten to uncoil as suddenly as the snakes in the bayou at the bottom of the garden. This surface balance is even more fragile in the home of Mozelle, whose neatly contained glamour masks her despair at losing everyone she loves. She earns her living through a form of "counseling" that incorporates clairvoyance with elements of voodoo, but she cannot perceive answers to any of her own problems. The actor Debbi Morgan plays Mozelle as carrying on the tradition not only of her story-specific ancestor African Eve, but also of the countless "conjure women" whose ancient healing and insight traditions made the lives of slaves healthier and more resilient. As part of a 1960's middle class black community, Mozelle illustrates the pain of a rupturing sense of double consciousness as she warns her niece Eve not to transcend boundaries by experimenting with voodoo.
Eve ignores her advice and asks Elzora, a local conjure woman whose bayou shack seems untouched by 20th-century American accoutrements, to arrange the death of her father. She also disregards Mozelle's distrust of Elzora, played in whiteface with maniac humor by Diahann Carroll, and her specific denunciation of the comedically exaggerated "conjure woman" as a duplicitous witch and lying trickster. Elzora does indeed embody many elements of the traditional trickster. She blurs the filmic lines between good and evil, the real and the imagined, the tragic and the laughable. She appears at times to channel the original Edenic Eve, but without clear indication as to whether she is more innocent than threatening. Before young Eve actually goes to see Elzora, she asks Mozelle about using voodoo to kill: "Do you just wish real hard that they were dead, or do you have to do something special?" She rejects Mozelle's insistence that "You can't kill people with voodoo--that's ridiculous."
In this film, the positive aspect of an African belief system's psychic power is stressed through Mozelle, who channels her gift of second sight into helping people cope with the prescient knowledge of crucial future events and circumstances. As Eva Rueschmann has pointed out, "Mozelle embodies African American women's history of suffering and survival, an experience of loss that has made her compassionate towards the loss of others. She is a healer like her brother.... She has inherited the legacy of folk medicine and spirituality, and, combining them with Christian faith, she represents a bridge between Old and New Worlds, a syncretic form of African American folklore and culture" (98). She uses ancient remedies and herbal roots as curative tools and tells an ailing woman to fill a small bag of chamois with "John Conqueror root, tie it with devil's shoestring and with your right hand sprinkle five drops of holy water--keep the bag next to your skin." Eve witnesses this counsel and admonishes her: "You told Daddy you didn't practice no voodoo!" Eve's physician father proclaims his more conventional western medicine is responsible for the woman's improvement, but Eve believes that Mozelle's African antidote merits more credit, and asks her, "Does it work?" Mozelle enigmatically replies, "We'll see!" "What if it don't?" asks Eve. "I don't think she'll sue me," laughs Mozelle. That apparent self-mockery (barely) masks Mozelle's belief in her "power" as a successful survival strategy that is a constant in the film, even though it is discounted by other members of her family. Later the same day Eve listens to her grandmother (played by Ethel Ayler) defending Mozelle: "she may be crazy but her visions come true.... In my day we were thankful for signs and warnings."
In To Sleep With Anger signs and warnings are treated with great seriousness. Gideon and Suzie (played respectively by Paul Butler and Mary Alice) have brought with them to South Central Los Angeles a profound faith in the African traditions that had sustained generations of their family members in Mississippi. Filmmaker Burnett was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and moved to Los Angeles at an early age, where like his characters Gideon and Suzie, his own family kept chickens in the yard and grew their own food as a natural part of a self-sustaining rural ethos. His parents and grandparents carefully passed down their folk stories and traditional beliefs. At the start of the film, Gideon is entertaining his grandson, Sonny, with a traditional tale about tricksterism and simultaneously fretting about misplacing his "toby" (sometimes spelled "tobie"), or protective charm. The fretful mood proves prophecy when a real trickster arrives on their doorstep. The visitor, Harry (played by Danny Glover), is immediately angry because Sonny brushes against his feet with an old style straw broom, a traditional symbol of (witch's) power and a presage of ill luck in this context; so Harry attempts to divert danger by spitting on the broom. "As in the original 'trickster' stories of the South, Harry is a mythological character, half-sacred/half-sordid, whose arrival disturbs a family's (mis)functioning" (Reynaud 324).
Burnett had himself been told countless African derived stories by his grandmother and years later discovered that many of the same tales were part of folkloric stock in Georgia and the Carolinas as well as Mississippi. As an adult he learned that the legend of "The Hairy, Hairy Man" was as common in Georgia and North Carolina as in his native Mississippi. He grew up in L. A. conscious of his mother's dismissal of African customs but still listening to his grandmother's "wonderful stories." As Lorraine Johnson-Coleman has emphasized, the saga of "'Wiley and the Hairy Hairy Man' is an old African American tale that has existed for generations" and originated in African myths about soultaking tricksters. In her version Wiley manages to fool the Hairy Hairy Man three times and to redeem his almost lost soul, but his mother still warns him: "I tell you this Wiley, and you tells everybody you know that if you're no count, do no good, sass grown folks, or treat people evil then the Hairy Hairy Man is gonna come get you" (164-77). Burnett has explained that he based the relationship between Harry and Baby Brother's son Sonny, on this tale, this "mythical character. What happens is that, in order to escape him, you have to out-trick him. I was trying to establish some kind of continuity between the present and the past by using contemporary situations combined with this folklore character .... I was combining fantasy and reality."
The Hairy Hairy Man can take many forms. Burnett gives him the shape of an old friend of Gideon and Suzie's who claims to be passing through L. A. but then stays with them for an indecorous length of time. As Burnett has explained: "He's an evil spirit embodied in a human being. Gideon and he knew each other years back, but Harry admits that he's a stranger now" (Ellison). His smooth, polite surface masks serious menace. He has come to steal a vulnerable soul and wisely, rapidly, sizes up Gideon and Suzie's youngest son as a likely candidate.
The eldest son is too solidly grounded in the family and too comfortable with his African heritage to be victimized by the predatory trickster. Junior accepts his mixed African and American influences with relative ease. He and his wife Pat are clearly a close couple united in their ability to absorb traditional customs as an integral part of their lives. (Notably, the actors playing these roles in Burnett's film are also married off-screen.) Also, they have in To Sleep a loving, responsible teenaged daughter; their unborn child kicks so violently when Harry approaches his mother that she is unable to shake his hand. When Harry later tries to convince the couple that their efforts to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless are vain and pointless, and may even be fired by a fascination with deprivation and morbidity, his barbs fail to puncture their genuine compassion. The youngest son, however, is a divided and discontented spirit whose hunger for material success has disconnected him from the cultures of his African ancestors and the emotional ties of his L. A. family. Even his nickname suggests his immaturity--his wife, Linda (played by Sheryl Lee Harris), calls him Babe and to his parents he is either Baby or Babe Brother, although they christened him Sam. Before Harry arrived, Suzie was convinced that time would resolve the conflicts within Babe Brother: "it just takes some people a little longer to figure out who they are," she says. Harry more aggressively says of Babe Brother that "some people are still waiting for their comeuppance."
In To Sleep With Anger, Hattie, an old and prescient friend from Mississippi, sees right through Harry's good mannered exterior to the evil in his soul. She tells him, "You remind me of so much that went wrong in my life. ... You tappy head. You ain't worth the salt in greens." Played with subtle sassiness by Ethel Ayler, Hattie discomforts Harry as much with her newfound religious intensity as with her sharp words. When he insists she sing at a fish fry that he has suggested be held at Gideon and Suzie's, she dismisses him as always needing "to rule the roost," and refuses to sing at all until well after he has left the room. Then she proceeds to give devotional intensity to a slow burning version of "Stand By Me." Later Hattie advises Suzie to ask Harry to leave: "Harry always shows his good side.., but he's evil, that old fox. If it was left up to me I'd poison him. Just take a look at Gideon and just ask yourself when did it all start?" Suzie acknowledges that Gideon has been ill since the invader arrived. Harry overhears and admits that he is hell bound: "I don't make any bones about where I'll spend eternity. I've always been wild and you know that. When you are made to feel only half a man, you don't know what the other half is." Suzie takes the opportunity to ask him just what he is and in spite of his slippery, evasive answer, she does tell him to leave. Ever the controller, he assures her that he had already planned to do so, and then subtly threatens her with the loss of a son as he gives her a look of chilling menace and leaves her a photograph of his own dead sons. Cliff Thompson suggests that "so understated is this film--that the viewer who misses some key bits of dialog may miss altogether Harry's purpose ... when Harry waxes personal to Suzie and he cannot resist pulling out a snapshot of his dead sons, he tips his hand: he's come to take away one of Suzie's sons to replace his own. As it happens, one of them is ripe for the taking. The younger son, played by Richard Brooks, is a study in discontent" (Thompson 25).
By this time, according to Burnett himself, Babe Brother is ready to "adopt [Harry] as his spiritual father because he couldn't identify with his own father. Harry is everything: a gambler and maybe a murderer. Harry makes it clear that he intends to take Babe Brother with him when he goes away, and admits, "I am not the person you knew." In a more traditional working of the story of "the hairy, hairy man," Harry would have to be tricked, or confounded, three times for Baby Brother to escape his eternal clutches. In the more condensed world of film (especially in a film that had to be reduced from four hours to two), it becomes realistic and visually impressive to allow the release of Baby Brother's soul to be expedited by his own son. His child is aware yet unconscious of the full implications of his actions when he leaves his tin of marbles in the path of his mother, who kicks them over the floor where Harry trips and falls to his death. Gideon immediately recovers, and the wounded family heals quickly enough to be no more than mildly irritated by the delay in getting the authorities to remove the body. The corpse seems an ironic reminder of both the persistence of the trickster and the ultimate futility of his presence in the face of familial love and unity.
Symbolism in both films encompasses the obvious and the subtle. Harry carries a rabbit's foot to replace his toby, "a charm old people teach you how to make, you wouldn't want to be at a crossroads without it. I had one for a long time that used to belong to my grandmother since she was a child. In my travels I misplaced it and I've been looking over my shoulder ever since." His choice of a rabbit's foot hints at his affinity with Brer Rabbit and his African trickster antecedents. Harry wields a knife during this conversation with Babe Brother and his wife and son. The "cutting" power of the knife is sharpened when Harry states, "I don't believe in sin, but there is good and evil. Evil is something you have to work at." He hints at a crucial meeting with the devil at a crossroads, which could explain his transformation into a devious envoy who succeeds in dragging Gideon and Suzie's whole family to a perilous crossroads. Later, he is using his knife (with the rabbit's foot attached to its handle) to peel an apple, the forbidden fruit, when Gideon is suddenly struck down with a stroke. This competition is linked with the very start of the film when the camera pans from Gideon in a white suit to a bowl of fruit on the table by his side. The bowl of fruit bursts into flames just before Gideon's shoes conflagrate, but half a cut apple by the side of the bowl remains unaffected. Gideon's illness grows worse when Harry hovers around his bed with some soup made from ingredients he has cut up with his knife, and Gideon's prostrate form begins foaming at the mouth.
In Eve's Bayou, Ros cuts herself with a knife while chopping up a sweet potato, a root that connects the US South back to Africa, while her mother-in-law dissects the most Louisianan of all vegetables, snap beans or zydeco. (2) Eve immediately realizes that this cut results from her frustration and fear, and remonstrates with her mother about her ability to distinguish real or presciently envisioned danger from that which exists only in her imagination. Eve intuits potential disasters lurking, but she is effectively silenced by her own unwillingness to address what she feels her mother fears. This unspoken fear ultimately provides a complicit misunderstanding between all the female members of the family about what may have happened between her vulnerable older sister, Cisely (played by Meagan Good), and their inebriated father. The possibility of incest cuts through family affection and harmony with a blade as sharp as any knife.
In Eve's Bayou, Eve herself becomes a site for diffused explorations of ancient African tales. Allusions to the stories that feature Anansi the spider, who has all of the positive and negative attributes of the most complex tricksters, are a constant factor in Eve's prophetic dreams and visions. After Eve says goodnight to Mozelle's third husband, Harry (played by Branford Marsalis), for whom she has great affection, she suddenly finds her mind flooded by a black and white image of a spider suspended on the wet windscreen in which Harry was driven off by Mozelle. She wakes the next morning to an echo of Harry's last words to her ("Goodnight, Red") and to another black and white image of the same spider. She immediately realizes that the spider was both a portent and a confirmation of Harry's death in a car accident from which Mozelle walked away unscathed. Much later in the film, Eve has a more personal sense of oncoming disaster when she again "sees" an image of a spider on a wet windowpane. This time the combination of the spider and water, connoting the Middle Passage, presages Cisely's defiant return from a forbidden visit to a beauty parlor and a confrontation between mother and daughter where the incestuous desire of Cisely for her father suddenly becomes obvious to her frustrated and jealous mother. Mother slaps daughter, leading inexorably to father slapping daughter when she kisses him "like a woman" later that night. From then on the family remains fractured and dysfunctional until they are united in grief after Louis's death.
Birds are complex indicators of the characters' choices between freedom and enthrallment, life and death. Pigeons soar freely the morning after Harry has arrived in Burnett's southern California, contrasting the character's snares. Harry performs a ritual circular movement around a chicken that he intends to kill when the sound of a neighboring boy's ineptly discordant trumpet breaks the spell and the bird runs free. The very image of chickens in a South Central back yard has already signaled the enduring power of an old Southern rural way of life and a self-sufficient approach to life within a modern urban setting. When Babe Brother is most fully destabilized, which is to say, when he is virtually bewitched by Harry into mistreating his wife and son to the point where they fearfully leave him, he picks up a dead bird in a swirling stream. This dead creature of flight seems to release Harry's hold on his mind: suddenly, he can hear his son's voice calling out to him to penetrate his befuddlement. In Eve's Bayou, an owl sits on a shelf inside the conjure woman's house and solemnly watches Eve tell Elzora that she wants her father dead. This bird of night portends misplaced anger and hasty decisions, and intimates an imminent death.
Birds and flight form recurring motifs in Eve's Bayou, as in much African American literature. Eve's Bayou began as two short stories, and the dense layering of ideas and images results from the interconnection of a writerly with a filmic imagination. Lemmons has spoken of the screenplay as "an experiment in creating a form. I'd written screenplays before, and I knew how to write them, but I guess I'm very much a frustrated novelist. Eve's Bayou had the feeling of a hybrid of a novel and a screenplay ... the whole story is a fantastical memory" (Noncenti 93). Lemmons's use of the flying motif confounds the sense of what is possible less than does Toni Morrison's use of the same motif in Song of Solomon; her representation of the memories of slaves who watched other slaves fly back to Africa compares with that Julie Dash incorporated cinematically into Daughters of the Dust (1991). Lemmons very subtly associates flying with escaping from slavery. For example, when Mozelle dreams of flying, Lemmons symbolizes her character's psychological release from enslavement to the morbid fear engendered by the deaths of her three husbands. All three had loved her with a love that left her feeling suffocated; their violent deaths, contrastingly, left her filled with relentless guilt. Only Mozelle's flight dreams ease her sense of herself as cursed and barren. Eventually, Julian Grayraven comes along and treats her with tender respect and equality; he promises to heal her heart, so she stops dreaming of flying and marries him, apparently secure that this relationship will neither confine her nor doom him. (It seems appropriate that Grayraven is played by the actor Vondie Curtis Hall, who is Lemmons's own supportive actor-director husband.) When Mozelle tells Eve that she has decided to accept Grayraven's offer of marriage, she also describes a recent dream in which she is flying while watching another embodiment of herself drown while she flies on free from the morbid aspects of her past life. As this dream of flying over her own drowned other self continues, she hears the voice of Louis, her now dead brother, saying, "Don't look back." Her flying had provided her with a release from Elzora's prophecy that all of Mozelle's husbands would die. Moreover, the dream raises the implicit promise that Julian Grayraven will foil Elzora's African inflected forecast: "next man who marries you will be a dead man--always be that way."
Train tracks and trains themselves have long signified both real and metaphorical journeys in African American literary and vernacular culture. In To Sleep With Anger Harry wanders down tracks in Los Angeles and talks to an old acquaintance about the memories of hard labor as well as the mobility that train tracks symbolize. Tracks embody the transitory nature of time itself in Eve's Bayou, in which Eve and Mozelle foresee the imminent death of Louis Batiste on a set of train tracks. Because the figure of the unseen journey lies encoded in train tracks, neither Eve nor her aunt fully comprehends what her precognizance signifies until it is too late and Louis has been shot by the jealous husband (played by Roger Guenveur Smith) of Matty Mereaux (played by Lisa Nicole Carson), one of his lovers: Louis falls to his death in front of an oncoming train. Here the tracks symbolize a final transition from life to death. That it is a transition and not an end to a journey is made clear by his sister, who tells Eve that her father has spoken to her from beyond the grave. He wanted to tell Eve that he still owed her a dance--something he had promised her before his death was first preconfigured by either his daughter or his sister. While Eve blames herself for her father's death, she never knows if he died from a voodoo curse or because of the suspicions of his adultery that she had placed so deliberately in the mind of Lenny, Matty Mereaux's husband. Either way, she is aware that she has used her knowledge and power for destructive ends. Now she feels partially released from the burden of that guilt since Mozelle's psychic connection with her dead brother has provided assurance of his forgiveness and his continuing love.
Symbolism is also heavily signified at the very start of Burnett's film. To Sleep With Anger begins with Gideon clothed in a pure, redemptive white Sunday suit and pristine white shoes that literally become inflamed as his thoughts are caught up with less than sacred concerns. While the flames leap up his white clothed legs, he languorously twiddles his fingers in time to the accompaniment of a shifting blues guitar that moves from echoes of Africa, through gospel inflections, to urban sophistication and back again. That the guitar is played by Stephen James Taylor, the film's composer, over Sister Rosetta Tharpe's vocal recording of "Precious Memories," heightens the disturbing sense of dualism and conflict. As the blues guitar and Rosetta's soaring voice continue their overlapping questing, the tension between Gideon's African associated Mississippi past and the destructive aspects of acquisitive city values is immediately signified. Burnett has summed this up succinctly: "Gideon has a dream, a nightmare, born out of anger and frustration. He's lost his Toby. He sees himself burning up in hell for the first time, and then Harry shows up" (Reynaud 325). But Burnett has also made it clear that redemption is signified by the pure gospel tones of the devotional singer. Later, the same song acquires a sense of menace when it is used as an accompaniment for Harry's illicit and covetous search through the photographs and letters that enshrine precious memories of the family he has invaded. Yet the menace is counteracted by the powerful sense of goodness contained in Rosetta's vocals. While Harry is seeking a photograph that will facilitate his theft of the soul of Baby Brother to the complex sounds of "Precious Memories," Suzie, Gideon, Pat, and Junior listen in the local Baptist church to "Take Me to the Water," as the youngest female in the family is baptized. Water is depicted here as spiritually and physically restorative.
Symbolism and music are constantly intertwined in Burnett's and Lemmon's respective films. Obviously, water, rather than fire, is the element that opens Eve's Bayou. The dark meanderings of the bayou are made more mysterious by the overhanging Spanish moss and the switch to black and white film as death is remembered or predicted and underscored by the darkly bluesy orchestral accompaniment. The shadowy waters of the bayou had offered protection to runaway slaves before abolition and now, in the present day of the film, seem to harbor images of a figure that could be the ghost of the original African Eve still watching over her progeny to the wistful strains of the film's haunting musical theme. The music in the whole of Eve's Bayou is also laden with Southern blues. The film's composer, Terence Blanchard, has stated very clearly in a letter to this author that "Eve's Bayou is based on African-American elements of blues and rhythm and blues. The instrumentation dictates that the guitar play a vital role in establishing the tonal center which represents that style of music" (Blanchard). Terence Blanchard, an African American New Orleanian who was taught jazz by Ellis Marsalis at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for Creative Arts) and who went on to succeed Ellis Marsalis as Professor of Jazz at the University of New Orleans in the fall of 2001, has made composing for the screen one of his musical priorities. In his varied career he has worked on several film scores for Spike Lee and Matty Rich, but Eve's Bayou is the only opportunity he has had to date to reflect the musical heritage of his native state in a full-length feature.
In contrast to Lemmons's choice of Blanchard as composer for Eve's Bayou, Stephen James Taylor, Burnett's (white) choice of composer, poignantly expresses the spirit of the blues in To Sleep With Anger. Burnett and Taylor are regular collaborators such that a kind of osmosis seems to enable Taylor to capture Burnett's musical memories in the film. Songs that Burnett recalls his grandmother singing are recreated as part of the diagetic music that gives the film so much resonant tension. Ayler's gospel intonations and underlying sexual frissance evoke the ongoing dualism when she sings "Stand By Me." Jimmy Witherspoon also sings at a party with an intensity pulsing through his slow version of "See See Rider" that is offset by his emotional and physical distance from those understood to be his friends--griot-like, he tells a metaphorical story to accompany and comment on the proceedings. The entire background score, and not just the diagetic music, conveys African derived sounds. In the non-diagetic music there are fluid connective moments where Africa meets Mississippi meets modern Los Angeles with just the appropriate intimations of the conflict that had been wrought by spatial upheaval. All this Taylor achieves with subtle elisions and slides and what are often the most fleeting of flatted notes. It is blues as a feeling rather than simply a 12-bar format.
Very much the same could be said of the score for Eve's Bayou, except that in it a lush, lyrical effect evokes the savannahs of a half-remembered African homeland as well as the humid, overhung Louisiana bayous. Both films use the wide range of musical possibilities and combinations available through imaginative, talented, and adventurous jazz musicians to add depth and nuance to the personal and communal dilemmas at the heart of each storyline. The symphonic elegance that tethers Eve's Bayou to its romantic setting (established largely by Amy Vincent's extraordinarily lyrical cinematography) bears witness to Terence Blanchard's provenance as the son of a musical family among whom opera was as familiar as jazz, and there was a serious awareness that home town New Orleans was the only American city that had a Negro Philharmonic Orchestra in the nineteenth as well as the twentieth centuries. Yet it was always a city where African musical traditions were fused with those of European origin. The blues can, of course, be traced back through New Orleans and the Mississippi delta to Senegambia: the foundation underpinning all of the music in Lemmons's film is the blues.
In neither film is the music ever used in a simplistic way. Stark trumpet or guitar solos frequently offer an alternative subtext rather than reinforcing the on-screen action. For To Sleep With Anger Burnett draws on songs he sang as a child to establish the feel of cultural passage involved in juxtaposing African rooted music with the sounds of a modern city. Ironically, it was only after he had related the songs and explained their significance to Taylor that he was told by an anthropologist just how African they actually were (Ellison). An even more personal aspect of the film is provided by the sound of a very young dissonant trumpeter who both annoys the neighbors and leaves them wondering whether he is an incipient musical genius. Burnett himself used to practice his own trumpet until his family and neighbors complained of being driven to distraction by discordant trumpeting. In the film this unsettling sound emanates from an innocent boy whose intermittent attempts to produce less damaging sounds from his trumpet heralds the battle that is slowly erupting over the lifestyle of this community and the soul of vulnerable Babe Brother. The trumpet interludes also form a call and response to the narrative that comments on without actually intersecting the progression of events. There is an intrinsic dualism in this use of the trumpet in the hands of someone who, like Eve in Lemmons's film, has barely reached the end of the first decade of life. Consequently, the strident sound asks questions too complicated to verbalize, rather than makes any of the authoritative assertions or sexual challenges often associated with such a dynamic instrument. Here, the dynamism is directed toward highlighting troubled areas and inspiring risk-taking. Survival is a more human goal than perfection, and that echoes through the uncertain notes of the aspiring horn.
Blanchard's trumpet is not used as part of the diagetic music in Eve's Bayou, but its presence is crucial to introducing a subtle edginess into ambivalent situations. When, for instance, Eve goes to visit Elzora in her swamp house, the trumpet tentatively heralds her arrival, and then dark piano chords reflect her confusion when, instead of being given the voodoo doll she imagines to be the stock tool of all conjure women, she is told that the hair she had given Elzora on her first visit has been placed in the mouth of a snake and buried in the graveyard. Eve herself had previously used his fear of snakes to frighten her younger brother, Poe (played by Jake Smollett), both with a live snake at the edge of the Bayou near their home and with a dead snake placed on his pillow as he slept. Now she herself fears what Elzora's snake could symbolize.
The music changes again to reflect Eve's concern that instead of gaining possession of a voodoo doll that she herself could control, she is being controlled as part of an ancient African ritual. The hair she had given Elzora was her father's, which she had taken in anger when Cisely told her of her vague memories of having been sexually abused by their too much loved father. Eve realizes she does not want Louis to die, but the placing of his hair in the mouth of that archetypal harbinger of loss, the snake, would ensure that he lost his life. Eve has known of this folk belief but hasn't fully accepted it as truth. The musical score dramatically illustrates her fearfulness and panic. It also echoes the guilt Eve feels both for wishing her father dead and for sowing seeds of doubt about Matty Mereaux's faithfulness in the mind of her previously unsuspecting husband. The music becomes more ominous as she runs to find her father to try to avert impending disaster; diagetic blues take over when she finds him with Matty in a juke joint. At the point of his death the sounds of a train commingle with mournful orchestral sounds. The real strength of Blanchard's score, as of Taylor's, is that the music always goes beyond merely reflecting or supporting the action to suggesting the characters' emotional conflicts. The ambivalence and insecurity felt by Eve, before she decides that she wants her father dead, are encoded in the softly suggestive strains of "Amazing Grace" just before she steals a pineapple in the local market. The music that hints at absolution for a redundant theft fuelled by fear changes pace and melody as Elzora mocks her. All of the unseen consequences of Eve's impulsive actions are intimated in the complex, often African sounds that fill this sequence of scenes.
Blanchard pours a flood of potent blues into the close of Eve's Bayou. The sound carries across the water: Buddy Bolden reaches listeners right across the width of Lake Pontchartrain. The very qualities that critically comment on Spike Lee's Mo' Better Blues--"the complex rethinking of phallic masculinity implicit in Blanchard's music ... the vulnerability, sensuality and introspection of Blanchard solos" (Gabbard 158)--perfectly complement the film and its ending. As the credits roll, there is a return to the theme of African initiated female storytelling as Erykah Badu sings "Child of the Blues," co-written for the film by the acutely equality conscious Curtis Mayfield and by Badu herself. Deana Cohen, who put together the soundtrack for the film, was nervous about approaching the disabled Mayfield, but when she and Lemmons went to his home and showed him the film, "he cried. He told us he loved it. Three days later he called me and sang a new song on the phone. Then I was in tears" (Crisafulli 6). Badu sings about Eve as the "child with blues, never to [sic] young to pay her dues." The vocals were sung in the distinctive voice that evokes her familiar image as a proud African American woman dressed in the traditional head rag and swathed robe of her ancestral African homeland.
Neither Eve's Bayou nor To Sleep with Anger directly confronts racism nor discusses the civil rights struggle, even though each is set in the 1960s. However, the issue of racial identity provides a foundational subtext for both films. Eve's Bayou is literally built on the sexually charged guilt and pride that ensured that a whole town of African American descendants of a slave and a slave owner could live without fear of racist confrontation and rejection. In the film's representation of Du Boisian double consciousness, blackness and not whiteness is normative, although white social characteristics and qualities have been integrated with African folklore and cultural style. That brutality might have been part of the interracial relationship that produced an independent black township is hinted at only in shadowy black and white visions reflected in a child's eye. Nothing else in the film remarks the turbulent 1960s.
To Sleep With Anger presents an African American family living in South Central Los Angeles to escape the consuming racism that is the plight of virtually all descendants of Mississippi's slaves and sharecroppers. Burnett describes the tension that ensues: "I lived in this house where there was this conflict between old and new, between Africa and America, and there were these folkways that you tended to reject" (Ellison). As a late follower of Malcolm X, Burnett suddenly felt in tune with his African ancestry and set out to prepare the collard greens that seemed to be an essential aspect of recognizing the African in an African American self: "I have loved collard greens ever since" (Ellison). Greens form a quiet pleasure in To Sleep when Suzie receives a bunch from an unwelcome suitor, encouraged by Harry to make a claim on Suzie's affections as a future marriage partner even while Gideon is still alive. Suzie's delight in the gift of the greens is as evident as her disgust in the offer of marriage; she rejects it with trenchant sarcasm and turns abruptly to feed her dog. Burnett's film constantly evaluates the role of black heritage within a larger society that denies black people full equality while appropriating their culture as quintessentially American. As Jacquie Jones has stressed, "To Sleep With Anger also authenticates the awesome power of the ordinary, albeit the mythic ordinary.... To Sleep With Anger is a study in contrasts: what appears to be and what is, lore and reality, love and hate, good and evil. With it, Burnett proves to be a master of allegory" (21).
While Lemmons is differently allegorical than Burnett, there are significant connective links between certain characters common to both Burnett and Lemmons. Ethel Ayler, who stars in both films, plays the only character in To Sleep With Anger who has the instincts and the prescience to see through Harry's facade and to recognize the African historical antecedents of the duplicitous nature of the intruder's superficial geniality. In her role as the Batiste matriarch in Eve's Bayou, Ayler also plays a character who functions as touchstone for the importance of second sight and para-rational knowledge. She respects "signs and warnings" as being an ineluctably accurate and valued aspect of her African heritage in each of the two films. Both films were enthusiastically co-produced by the enabling Caldecott Chubb and by the individual leading men of each, To Sleep's Danny Glover and Bayou's Samuel L. Jackson. Both films relied for much of their funding and publicity on these high profile, usually well-paid leading men. Burnett reports that he was impressed by Glover's humility and intelligence, and Lemmons had the same reaction to Jackson (Ellison). According to the respective filmmakers, neither actor ever traded on his reputation or financial input for any kind of favored status on the film set. Jackson has said that he wanted to do Lemmons's film because of the brilliance and credibility of her script; I think, for him, Eve's Bayou shows the multi-layered complexity of African American men and women with rare depth. Both Glover and Jackson have separately stated that they enjoyed being able to put some of the profits they had gleaned from big budget Hollywood movies into small budget, black themed and directed films.
There also seems to be a spirit of liberation that drives some of the primary actors in both films. In Eve's Bayou Vondie Curtis Hall symbolizes black men who acknowledge black women's equality with black men. Later Hall produced several low budget movies, including Phil Alden Robinson's historically accurate and emotionally liberating film Freedom Song (2000), in which Danny Glover plays a catalyst for communal resistance during the years of the civil rights movement. Similarly, Jurnee Smollett moved on from playing Eve to working with Burnett as a freedom fighting schoolchild in Selma, Lord Selma (1998), a sensitively filmed docudrama based on the autobiography of Sheyann Webb that effectively memorializes Webb's civil rights experiences. For Jonathan Demme's Beloved (1998), Danny Glover, of course, reprised a variation of his role as an old family friend suddenly arriving from the South and generating a catalytic familiarity with the supernatural and the psychic. Glover's character's evolution as an agent of life affirming positivity starkly contrasts with his demise as a defeated trickster in To Sleep With Anger.
Burnett himself has said that he wants to diversify while still glorying "in making things work. The joy of it. Telling stories.... You can't make the same movie over and over again. If you keep making those films, they'll think those are the only films you can make. Then you'll be trapped and end up doing Killer of Sheep for the 19th time. Nobody wants that" (Mitchell 89-91). In an interview with bell hooks, Burnett has discussed the idea of dealing even more directly with double consciousness than constraints of marketing permitted in To Sleep With Anger: "Making a film and getting it distributed is the thing that is key. You have all these people telling you how to sell the film, and you know you're talking about double consciousness and all that sort of thing. I'd like to do films about that--about the sort of schizophrenic way black folks live" (hooks 163). Yet Burnett has already addressed in To Sleep With Anger many of the implications of Du Bois's contention about the centrality of African music and folklore in American as well as African American culture. Even the liminality of both cultural and national identity is signified by filmic markers that indicate "the essential instability of any particular into the domain of the universal" (Velikova 441). Mark Reid has delineated the problem of an independent, black folklore centered filmmaker attempting to work, even partially, within the studio system as one of "dual consciousness" (132). He writes that the box office failure of To Sleep With Anger was largely due to its being poorly marketed because it honestly critiques the conventional construction of Hollywood movies while privileging unaccepted aspects of African derived culture: "The plot develops with occasional narrative interruptions that disorientate [sic] the audience. The use of black southern folklore and superstition seasons the plot and differentiates the film from any previously studio-distributed black middle-class family film" (133). Furthermore, Jesse Rhines argues that To Sleep With Anger has to battle with audience expectation that black directed films should be either violent or comic (70). Burnett himself has wryly commented that one of the interested distributors
came up to me and said, "Well Charles, we like the film but there's no sex, no drugs, no violence, no car crashes or any kind of this, so how are you going to sell it?" Some of these distributors you talk to ask you, "What kind of movie are you going to make?" And I'll say, "I'm going to make one that's going to heal society." And they say, "Get this mess out of my office." (Burnett 10)
Both To Sleep With Anger and Eve's Bayou intricately theorize black historical and cultural memory and the fine line between "accurate" recall and distorted mis-remembering. Both also share fluid concepts of time, using a fresh concept of "spatial narration, often lingering and exploring variations on sequential structure" (Yearwood 41), although this convention is more marked and crucial in Eve's Bayou. Each filmmaker uses a blues aesthetic in depicting the way the past is always already present in the black Southern psyche, and in exploring the role of African ancestral heritage in freeing rather than oppressing the present. Burnett offers real hope to bell hooks that Hollywood is capable of making liberating films grounded in an alternative aesthetic: "Haile Gerima says that counter hegemonic images will never be supported in Hollywood. ... I don't think that always true, because To Sleep With Anger had those images" (hooks 159). Burnett consciously creates visual perspectives that reflect a subversive, alternative aesthetic that is "open to wide-ranging possibilities ... to diverse, competing, even accidental impressions" (Taylor 235).
Unlike many contemporary filmmakers addressing problems besetting the African American family, "Burnett finds a conclusion that resides within the continuum of African American experience and not in resistance to it. Rather than opting for an individual solution, as Boyz 'N the Hood's 'go to school' conclusion does, or blaming current crises like crack cocaine, Burnett makes the family necessary for recovery" (Jones 24). Burnett himself argues that he is using the black family as a metaphor for "the black community" that is in danger of disintegration through losing its roots (Watson 12). "Furthermore," adds Jacquie Jones, "by utilizing female characters as agents for positive change, To Sleep With Anger offers a solution at once communal and feminine" (Jones 24). Gary Dauphine argues that within "the icy-hot style of To Sleep With Anger, the light Burnett sheds on black life is at once uncompromising and gentle, able to move between firm critique and familial affection without contradiction" (76). To Carmen Coustaut, an independent black filmmaker and teacher, Burnett's To Sleep With Anger is among the few films she wants her students to watch and use as models: "I'd like them to go away with a new way of seeing--and not just seeing new images of African Americans as people with a distinct culture and history." While earnest in her admiration for Burnett, she has also declared that black women filmmakers have a uniquely rounded conception of their communities (Ferriera 38, 39).
Lemmons developed directing among her other skills as writer and actor because she perceived a serious lack of emotionally realized representations of African American communities and individuals on screen. Her own frustration seems to have been acute since she had played predominantly supporting, thinly fleshed roles in films such as Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991) and Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992). While pregnant with her first child, she wanted a deeper artistic experience. As both writer and director, she was able to address Jacqueline Bobo's challenge "to effect a cultural transformation by presenting a different version of Black women's social and cultural history" (273). Eve's Bayou constructs multi-faceted male as well as female characters to represent African cultural roots as part of the complexity of black communal interactions. The thematic development of visual imagery and the judicious use of repetition, long lenses, and mirrored images signify the survival not only of African vernacular form and practice but also of the black community itself. To Burnett, depicting survival consistently emerges as one of his central aims, so the continuity of ancient folklore and music merits special respect in a filmic context. In To Sleep With Anger he has pointedly superimposed collective, metaphysical African folklore on a modern situation in order to use "fantasy and reality" to help people resolve "conflicts from the past that are also part of their lives today" (Wall 21-22). His film and Lemmons's blend African derived magic realism with explorations of the conflicts "engendered" among the modern African American community. Each addresses the rich legacy of Africa and the ongoing challenge of double consciousness to US blacks.
Blanchard, Terence. Letter to Mary Ellison. 1 Nov. 2000.
Bobo, Jacqueline. "Reading Through The Text: The Black Woman as Audience." Diawara 272-87.
--. Lecture and answers to questions after screening of To Sleep With Anger. Harvard University Film Theater, Cambridge, MA. 8 Apr. 2000.
Burnett, Charles. "Talking about To Sleep With Anger." Los Angeles Weekly 12-18 Oct. 1990: 10.
Charity, Tom. "All About Eve's: Kasi Lemmons Spins Her Own Creation Tale." Time Out 12-19 Aug. 1998: 14.
Coaston, Makeda. "Interview: In conversation with Kasi Lemmons." Black Filmmaker 1.3 (1998): 122.
Crisafulli, Chuck. "Soundtracks: Chasing Goosebumps." Hollywood Reporter: Film & TV Music Special Issue (1998): 3-7.
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Ferreira, Patricia. "The Triple Duty of a Black Woman Filmmaker: An Interview with Carmen Coustaut." African American Review 27 (1993): 433-42.
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Harry, Allister. "Boyz, Guns, and Macho Values Are Out. Girls, Guts and Family Values Are In." Guardian 7 Aug. 1998: Section 2, 12-13.
hooks, bell. Reel to Real: race, sex and class at the movies. New York: Routledge, 1996.
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Mitchell, Monica. "Maker of Films." Directors Guild of America Magazine June/July 1998: 89-91.
Muhammed, Erika. "Kasi Lemmons: The Woman Behind Eve's Bayou." Ms Mar./Apr. 1998: 74-75.
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Pride, Ray. "Muddy Waters." Filmmaker 6.1 (1997): 44 & 83.
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(1.) Because I could not obtain a copy of the screenplay, I have taken the liberty of informally transcribing the dialogue of the film based on my aural impressions. The words attributed to Lemmons throughout this article do not reflect her precise film script. The character Eve speaks the passage cited here.
(2.) Plant life offers a positive connection to ancient African folklore in both films. Just as Lemmons's Mozelle uses roots and herbs to heal the fears and anxieties as well as the physical ailments of her patients, Burnett's Suzie surrounds Gideon's ailing body with a curative African mixture of leaves and flowers, and gives him cow parsley tea to drink. In doing so she risks incurring the wrath of her Baptist minister. She leaves the herbs in place on Gideon's bed even after she has been admonished: "Why sister, I thought you'd have relied on the power of [Christian] prayer rather than these old remedies." Neither Suzie nor Mozelle sees any contradiction in deploying a blend of Christian worship and African traditions to heal the sick among their loved ones.
Mary Ellison is a senior member of the Department of American Studies at the University of Keele in Staffordshire, UK. She is the author of multiple books and articles on African American music, film, and culture, including Extensions of the Blues (Riverrun, 1989) and Lyrical Protest: Black Music's Struggle Against Discrimination (Praeger, 1989). Her work continues to examine the role of race in film.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2005|
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