Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
Many black women will tell you that Eve’s Bayou is one of their favorite films. We don’t often get stories by and about black women on the big screen that deal with us as complex, three-dimensional human beings with joy and pain or strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, we don’t often find a black female filmmaker with Kasi Lemmons’ distinct style.
Fortunately, Lemmons was no one-trick pony. Anyone who saw Talk to Me has to note that the awesome chemistry between Chewital Ejiofor and Don Cheadle had to come from somewhere. They are now one of my favorite onscreen couples of all time. Many of us also eagerly await Black Nativity and have anticipated it for some time. However, one of Lemmons’ films is criminally overlooked and underrated.
One of the first things you may notice about The Caveman’s Valentine is its star, Samuel L. Jackson. Jackson portrays Romulus, a homeless but musically talented man living in a cave in New York City. The locals constantly antagonize him, hoping he will go on a rant for their entertainment and amusement. You see this is the thing: Romulus deals with a mental illness that cost him his once promising music career after studying piano at Julliard. He now focuses his energy ranting against his supposed archenemy Cornelius Gould Stuyvesant who Romulus says lives in the Chrysler Tower and keeps watch on him.
When a young homeless man he knew is found frozen to death outside his cave, Romulus is led to believe that an avant-garde photographer named Leppenraub is behind the murder. He wants to prove it, but he may not be able to hold himself together in order to make a convincing case. He does turn to his daughter Lulu who is an NYPD officer. However, their relationship is strained as Lulu does not approve of her father chasing after what she perceives are his delusions. While you can understand Lulu’s concern for Romulus, and even eventually her disappointment, you always know that Romulus can handle himself.
You see this is also the thing: Romulus’ mental illness is not a hindrance. He is clever and intelligent and knows how to go about getting what he needs in order to make it to Leppenraub in order to prove his friend Scotty was murdered. He impresses a wealthy man named Bob and his wife Betty who give Romulus an old suit so that he can perform at a gathering Leppenraub is holding in honor of his latest work. He also manages to find a couple of unlikely allies: Leppenraub’s assistant Joey and Leppenraub’s sister Moira.
Even though Romulus’ mental illness is not a hindrance, it does manage to reemerge during inopportune times. This is where much of the suspense lies. Romulus cannot seem to play the piano without seeing swarms of seraph moths in his head. Visions of his ex-wife Sheila in her younger years also haunt him. He sees Stuyvesant’s eye on him through colored lights and grows agitated. It’s heartbreaking to see him break down after he has managed to make it to Leppenraub’s farm and begins to perform.
Yet, you wait to see how it plays out. How is he going to get back to Leppenraub’s farm in order to get the evidence he needs to prove the murder? And just who are these No Faces pursuing him? Why would Moira and Joey help him with their close connections to Leppenraub? Then there is his daughter Lulu.
Her desire to reconnect with her father is strong. She wants him to get off the street and at least get into a shelter where she feels he will not freeze to death in the cold New York winter. You can feel her disappointment when she sees her father’s ulterior motives in coming to her are to use her connections to the police department. Still, you aren’t surprised when she gives him what he needs and backs him up at crucial moments of his investigation. The father-daughter bond is strained but still remains strong.
That’s only one of the elements of the film that helps it stand out. Samuel L. Jackson’s performance as Romulus works on many levels, but Kasi Lemmons’ skills as a filmmaker also truly shine through in this one. The portrayal of the seraph moth dancers provide a dreamlike but haunting image of what goes on in Romulus’ mind. The use of colored light and the grainy appearance of film in flashbacks also contribute to the atmosphere driven entirely from Romulus’s point of view.
Lemmons does something I personally have only seen in foreign films like The Scent of Green Papaya: she commits poetry to film. Rarely do I watch a film and actually see how elements such as cinematography, lighting and location make a difference in how a story is told. But it’s all here. Lemmons brings the viewer into Romulus’ mind in a way that does not make light of mental illness nor portray it as a character flaw. Paranoid schizophrenia is not made into a quirky character prop but as a real state of being for Romulus. He might be okay living alone in that cave watching a blank television screen, but he might not.
The point is never to make Romulus pitiable or pitiful. He has plenty of character flaws unrelated to mental illness. In fact, he can become quite terrifying when he begins to shout at someone who apparently is not really there. Interestingly, the visions of the seraph moths are quite beautiful. Romulus never appears to be threatening until these visions manifest themselves into a rant against his (imagined) enemies.
However, he is also charming. His interaction with Moira captures this charm as he shows her a trick, turning himself into a jack-o-lantern by placing a lit match into his mouth through his teeth. He expresses gratitude to Bob and Betty for their kindness although he clearly finds fault with their excessive lifestyle.
But in the end, Romulus wins. He finds the answers he needs and realizes he was led to Leppenraub for a reason. He proves Matthew was murdered and brings the killer to justice. He isn’t suddenly “saved” from his existence as a troglodyte, but this is not the issue. Lemmons focuses on telling the story from Romulus’ complex point of view and comes out with a truly unique and beautiful film.