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[whitespace] Kasi Lemmons Calling the Shots: Kasi Lemmons, on the set of 'The Caveman's Valentine,' considers her next setup.


A March Valentine

Director Kasi Lemmons fights the odds and just might make it in Hollywood-- with a little help from the family psychologist and Samuel L. Jackson

By Dina Gachman

IT'S BEEN more than three years since Eve's Bayou, Kasi Lemmons' languid, eerie debut film, ushered in a new, much-needed African-American woman director onto the scene. In that short time, female filmmakers have punctured, with flashes of brilliance, the testosterone-centric films that dominate both Hollywood and the festival circuit.

Mary Harron (American Psycho), Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging; Mi Vida Loca), Euzhan Palcy (Sugar Cane Alley; A Dry, White Season), Alison Maclean (Jesus' Son) and Gina Prince (Love & Basketball) represent a small core of women with integrity and talent who, however subtly, are changing the face of filmmaking.

After graduating with a film degree from NYC's New School in the late '80s, Lemmons immediately started her career as an actor, appearing in School Daze, The Silence of the Lambs and Candyman, among others. She made the switch to director after realizing that Eve's Bayou was a story she wanted to translate onto the screen herself, from behind the camera.

Eve's Bayou, a dreamy film about the mystery and emotions lingering in the Batiste family in 1960s Louisiana, won over critics and became the highest-grossing independent film of 1997. It wasn't an easy task: Lemmons fought to keep Eve's Bayou true to her vision of a melancholy, cerebral story.

The Caveman's Valentine (which opened last week), her second film, took several years to put together. Samuel L. Jackson, who also starred in Eve's Bayou, was the genesis of the project. After reading the Edgar Award-winning novel by George Dawes Green, Jackson suggested Lemmons as the perfect fit for director. "Let me be clear," laughs Lemmons. "Sam hired me. He'd done my one little film, and I just thought, what are the chances of him wanting to do another quirky little film with me?"

"I think that I became passionate about The Caveman's Valentine immediately," Lemmons recalls. "I thought it was just incredible. It has a wonderful, intellectual character--it's full of humanity. I think I adopted a do-or-die attitude about it, just like I was with Eve's Bayou."

THE FILM FOLLOWS Romulus Ledbetter (Jackson), a Juilliard-trained pianist and one-time family man whose genius gets the better of him. We meet Romulus after he's been living on the streets and in a cave in New York City for 17 years, haphazardly flinging out paranoid delusions and psychotic rantings, haunted by visions and madness. Romulus emerges from his cave one night and sees the frozen corpse of a young street kid in the trees, and he's flung into the real world by his own need to find the truth behind the bizarre murder.

Lemmons added her unique visual style to Green's gothic story (she says she's drawn to and influenced by writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Toni Morrison). But it wasn't just the potential for magical realism that drew Lemmons to Caveman's Valentine: "My challenge was presenting African-American characters differently than what you're used to seeing."

Romulus is a complex, disturbed, incredibly talented man who's driven mad not only by psychological troubles, but by a society ruled by what he calls in one scene, "Bobs and Bettys"--a white, patriarchal upper class. Like Robin Williams' lunatic knight in Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King, Romulus' personal demons haunt him as much as the world around him. Romulus' main driving force in solving the murder is to win the respect of his daughter, Lulu (Aunjanue Ellis), a strong character whose straightforwardness grounds the film.

"Here's a black, woman NYC cop," Lemmons says of Lulu. "She's got adversity in her face every day, just trying to do her job. And here's her father--this ranting crazy person that she just can't get to."

Jackson disappears so thoroughly into Romulus that it's immediately believable when he shows up onscreen, long dreadlocks down his back, preaching insanity in the streets. It's obvious that Lemmons' film isn't anything like Shaft--Jackson's last big-budget Hollywood outing, and she hopes that people aren't misled by his movie-star status.

"I think that with a movie like this it might be dangerous, because you could end up enraging Shaft fans," she says, half-jokingly. "They come expecting to see one kind of movie, and this is a very different kind of movie."

Samuel L. Jackson The Haunted: Visions bedevil hirsute Samuel L. Jackson in 'The Caveman's Valentine.'


LEMMONS WORKED with the same group of filmmakers from Eve's Bayou (including director of photography Amelia Vincent and editor Terilyn Shropshire) to create a visceral, moody thriller that plunges straight into the psyche of a psychotic human being.

The material, though challenging, seemed natural to Lemmons. Her sister, a clinical psychologist specializing in schizophrenia, served as the psychiatric consultant on the film, and her mother is also a psychologist. "It's actually like the family profession. I'm kind of the black sheep. I didn't have to look far, because it was a language that I grew up with and a subject matter I was used to hearing."

Lemmons was eight months pregnant when she got the green lights for both Eve's Bayou and The Caveman's Valentine, and instead of letting that cause her to take a step back, it increased her desire to make the films. She's aware of her position as a woman, and as an African American filmmaker and the importance of lending her voice to films.

"It's still a male-dominated profession," she says, "and it's still something you have to work to overcome. I felt [making these films] was important, that on a level I had something to prove as far as being a woman. We're women, we have babies and still we can do these things. And if we have a dream it's our dream. Why should we let somebody else do it?"


The Caveman's Valentine (R; 105 min.), directed by Kasi Lemmons, written by George Dawes Green based on his novel, photographed by Amy Vincent and starring Samuel L. Jackson and Aunjanue Ellis, plays at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the March 15-21, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

For more information about the San Jose/Silicon Valley area, visit sanjose.com.




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