“It Feels Right to Me”: Epiphanies, Erotic Power, and Eve’s Bayou
Christina N. Baker / University of California, Merced

Kasi Lemmons looks at camera
Writer/Director Kasi Lemmons

An “epiphany” is how filmmaker Kasi Lemmons describes her decision to direct her debut film Eve’s Bayou (1997). Lemmons recalls, “One day—it was my birthday—I had an epiphany. I woke up and I thought, ‘Somebody else is going to fuck it up.’ So, I decided that I was the person to deliver the film.”[1] Her epiphany was spot-on. Lemmons’s film went on to win numerous awards. Renowned film critic Roger Ebert referred to it as “one of the very best films of the year.” It became one of the highest grossing independent films of 1997, and it was ultimately inducted into the National Film Registry, in 2018, for its cultural significance. 

Eve’s Bayou tells the story of the Batiste family—a wealthy Creole family living in Louisiana in the mid-1900s. The film is told through the eyes of Eve Batiste, who is 10 years old when the story takes place. Over the course of the story, Eve comes to the realization that she has the gift of sight, like her Aunt Mozelle and other women in her family. One of the first glimpses of Eve’s ability to see the future occurs when she wakes up suddenly after having a vision of her Aunt’s husband’s death before she hears of his death from others.

Eve (Jurnee Smollett) awakens, scared in bed
Eve (Jurnee Smollett) awakened by a vision in Eve’s Bayou

It is not a coincidence that the scene of Eve being awakened by the vision of her uncle’s fate is reminiscent of the way that Lemmons describes waking up with the epiphany that she was the right person to direct her film. There is a similar unwavering internal sense of knowing and feeling something deep inside that Lemmons describes experiencing herself and that she made visible in her envisioning of Eve (and Mozelle).

Mozelle and Eve in Eve's Bayou
Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) and Eve (Jurnee Smollett) in Eve’s Bayou

The epiphany—this intuitive sense of knowing—that Lemmons describes when discussing how she came to direct Eve’s Bayou is akin to what Audre Lorde calls “the erotic.” In Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, Lorde describes the erotic as a resource that “lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane.”[2] Importantly, the erotic is commonly misunderstood and trivialized by the dominant culture because of attempts to strip women of this power. While the erotic is certainly inclusive of sex and the related physical sensations,[3] what is often misunderstood or ignored is that the erotic reaches deeper than surface-level “sensation without feeling.”[4] And it is a resource that is within reach for women who are in touch with the awareness that the power of the erotic resides within themselves.

“The phrase, ‘It feels right to me,’ acknowledges the strength of the erotic as a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding…the erotic is the nurturer or nursemaid of all our deepest knowledge,”[5] writes Lorde. When Lemmons describes her decision to direct Eve’s Bayou as the result of an epiphany, she is expressing the sentiment behind this characterization of the erotic. Lemmons woke up the morning of her birthday and just knew she was the person to direct the film. It wasn’t simply a thought or idea—it was a feeling nurtured by the deepest knowledge within herself that this was right for her.

Over twenty years after writing and directing Eve’s Bayou, and directing several other films, Lemmons’s appreciation and respect for the intuitive knowledge of women is again evident in her film Harriet (2019), a biopic about the life of activist and abolitionist Harriet Tubman (which Lemmons directed and cowrote with Gregory Allen Howard). One integral element of the film’s narrative is that Tubman experiences visions that provide invaluable insight into the best path forward during her rescue missions.[6] Lemmons was inspired by the visions that Tubman experienced and centered them as a source of spiritual knowledge and empowerment for Tubman throughout the film: “The most profound part of her to me was [Tubman’s] spirituality…I didn’t really look at her as a mystic, but I do now,” she explained.

The relationship between Lemmons’s intuition and creative work is further illuminated by scholar Judylyn Ryan. In Ryan’s Spirituality as Ideology in Black Women’s Film and Literature, she explains that it is absolutely essential to acknowledge Black women’s ways of knowing when making any attempt to interpret the art of Black women. Along these lines, when Lemmons was asked about the role of her own “spiritual intuition” during an interview about Harriet, she acknowledged the significance of intuitive ways of knowing in her life and cinematic art: “I have analyzed my own visions and have tried to recall what they looked like or felt like to me. That’s been an ongoing process, and anybody who knows me knows that I have one foot in some other place…so it wasn’t that difficult for me to take Harriet at her word when she talks about her visions.”

Kasi Lemmons with Cynthia Erivo on Harriet set
Kasi Lemmons with Cynthia Erivo (as Harriet Tubman) on the set of Harriet

Lemmons’s Eve’s Bayou and Harriet foreground the power of Black women being in touch with the forms of knowledge that lie within the “deeply female and spiritual plane” that Lorde terms the erotic. Eve’s Bayou has been declared a testament to the way that “sometimes films can venture into the realms of poetry and dreams.” If Lemmons has one foot in some other place, then the dream-like narrative of Eve’s Bayou reflects her effectiveness at manifesting her spiritual vision on screen. As Judylyn Ryan argues, Black women filmmakers use film “to unmask other realms of experience—the realm of the hidden past, and the realm of the hidden/suppressed dimensions of the present.”[7] In both films, Lemmons emphasizes the power of spirituality as a feminine resource utilized by Black women to reveal insights into uncharted dimensions.

Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman
Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman

It may seem counterintuitive to consider “erotic power” in relation to a film about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, an iconic historical figure known for her unwavering strength and fortitude. Though feminine knowledge and strength are often marginalized within mainstream culture, Lorde uses the word erotic to mean “an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives.”[8] I apply Lorde’s characterization of the erotic here in recognition of the ways that Lemmons elevates the kinds of strength and empowerment that are associated with the feminine in her envisioning of Harriet Tubman. In Lemmons’s vision of Tubman’s life, the intuitive knowledge, or visions, that are not often centered in narratives about Tubman’s life are reclaimed as a source of empowerment that allowed Tubman to accomplish what others could not.

Whether labeled a vision or an epiphany, recognizing and valuing the knowledge within herself and other women has been vital in the creative work of Kasi Lemmons. Furthermore, the words of Audre Lorde make it clear that by starting with the feeling that resides within us, as Lemmons has done in much of her work, we are better able to access a sense of internal power and to claim that power in the world: “When we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense…In touch with the erotic, I become less willing to accept powerlessness.”[9] In touch with the power of the erotic, what feels right has the potential to become what is.


Image Credits:
  1. Writer/Director Kasi Lemmons
  2. Eve (Jurnee Smollett) awakened by a vision in Eve’s Bayou (author’s screen grab)
  3. Mozelle (Debbi Morgan) and Eve (Jurnee Smollett) in Eve’s Bayou
  4. Kasi Lemmons with Cynthia Erivo (as Harriet Tubman) on the set of Harriet
  5. Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman
References:
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  1. Erika Muhammad, “Kasi Lemmons: The Woman behind Eve’s Bayou,” Ms. Magazine, April 1998. []
  2. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider, Crossing Press Feminist Series edition (Ten Speed Press, 2013), 53. []
  3. Though I do not discuss representations of sexuality in this essay, Lisa B. Thompson explores representations of Black female sexuality in Eve’s Bayou (among other films) in her book Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class (2009). []
  4. Lorde, Sister Outsider, 54. []
  5. Lorde, 56. []
  6. The commonly accepted reason for Tubman’s visions is that she suffered a severe and painful head injury when she was young. []
  7. Judylyn S. Ryan, Spirituality as Ideology in Black Women’s Film and Literature (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 9. []
  8. Lorde, Sister Outsider, 55. []
  9. Lorde, 58. []

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