By Tom Gliatto
November 10, 1997 12:00 PM

Samuel L. Jackson, Lynn Whitfield, Debbi Morgan, Jurnee Smollet

In the exuberant party scene that opens this intoxicatingly vivid movie, all of the major characters are introduced. There’s Dr. Baptiste (Jackson), described by one party guest as “the best colored doctor in Louisiana”; his regal wife (Whitfield), on whom Baptiste cheats despite his genuine love for her; his three children, ages 14, 10 and 9; and his sister (Morgan, in an astonishingly vital performance), a psychic who can foresee everything but the fact that each of her husbands—she has had three so far—will die young.

Over the course of one steamy summer in what seems to be the late ’50s, the members of the proud, well-off Baptiste clan hurt each other as only those who love one another can. Mistakes are made, misunderstandings occur, and someone is fatally shot. All of which weighs particularly heavily on the doctor’s middle child (Smollet, a gifted young actress), the film’s narrator. She learns the hard way that there’s great truth to the words of her aunt: “No one lives this life without feeling pain.”

Eve’s Bayou, a remarkable debut film by director-screenwriter Kasi Lemmons, is so assured in the handling of its characters and settings that these people and their bayou will haunt you long after you see the movie. The cast, which includes Diahann Carroll in a small role as a fortuneteller who reads cat bones, is exceptional, with Jackson and Morgan taking highest honors. (R)