Movie-Hype (#704) – BLACK SNAKE MOAN
More than anything, it was the posters that got people talking. One just had Samuel Jackson, wrapped up in chains. If you don't know what the image of a black man in chains does to some people, stop reading right now. Another one had Christina Ricci, lying on the ground, half naked in chains. Hmm….let's see. If there's one thing more controversial than a black man in chains, it would have to be a half-naked white woman. (And a blonde woman at that.) Then there was the poster you see above. Might as well get their money's worth.
To understand this particular marketing campaign you have to understand the fall of the Movie Production Code. From the early '30s to the late '60s movies were regulated on what they could and couldn't show. (Watch any studio picture from that era, and tell me there's any material that comes close to pushing past the PG boundary, if that.)
Once the Production Code fell and ratings came in, Hollywood went a little nuts. If you watch movies from that era you'll notice an overabundance of language, violence, sex and nudity. I know what you're thinking: when are there EVER too many of those aspects? But you really can tell. Hollywood studios were like kids in a candy store.
An offshoot of this was bringing "B" pictures from the Grindhouse theatres on the outskirts of town into the studio system. These movies were called "Exploitation Films," and were known for a truly ridiculous amount of sex, violence and nudity. (As Robert Evans once said, "If you were a pretty girl with big tits, your odds of making through one of these movies un-killed and un-molested weren't very good.") Another feature was a virulent racism.
By today's standards, both the misogyny and the open racism would be unacceptable, but it was one of those things where—and I'm not making excuses—at least black people were getting parts. Most of the time the racists were the bad guys, and even when they weren't, the racism was so over-the-top that you mostly laughed at how ridiculous it was rather than planned your next Klan rally.
One of the interesting sub-developments of the Exploitation Film is that black folk in Hollywood eventually decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. A new breed of filmmakers celebrated the stereotypical ghetto scene, with pimps and pimpmobiles, bitches, hoes, and more "mutha-fuckas" than you could shake a stick at. Suddenly black people got to see people who looked like them in the hero role in such movies as SHAFT, FOXY BROWN and of course BLACKULA.
Returning to the present day, we have the case of Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer. I don't know enough about the man to tell you he was well-versed in the Blaxploitation Genre, but I don't see how he could not have been.
Brewer's first major film was HUSTLE & FLOW, one of the more unique urban pictures to come along in some time. In today's day and age "urban drama" is a standard genre, but Brewer somehow transcended that, taking a movie about a drug-dealing pimp and making it somehow a radiant testimony to the perseverance of the human spirit. (I wrote my review for HUSTLE & FLOW last February, and I still agree with everything I said then.)
Brewer's latest film is BLACK SNAKE MOAN, and now that we have had the history lesson, let's dive right in:
I guess the first thing to say right up front is that BLACK SNAKE MOAN (BSM from now on, and one could almost wish there was a DAMN in there before the word snake so I could have BDSM) is completely unlike any movie you've ever seen. Some people don't appreciate that. They want their movies to be safe, reassuring, and fit into well-defined boxes. BSM will most definitely not fit into any category you have on your DVD shelf.
The next thing to mention is that the marketing campaign is mostly a lie. Yes, the film is about a white nymphomaniac girl (Christina Ricci, playing Rae) who can't seem to stop violently sleeping with every guy she meets, and yes, there is an older black man (Samuel Jackson, playing Lazarus) who rescues her and decides to "cure" Rae of her demons by chaining her in her underwear to his radiator, and yes, it's Memphis and nobody has air conditioning so there is a lot of sweaty skin going on.
But looks can be deceiving. BSM is absolutely not (with perhaps the exception of one scene, which we'll get to later) an exploitation film. I was prepared for an exploitation film. I was expecting one. I was half apprehensive half excited, and when one didn't show up on screen I was a little disappointed, but be that as it may: BSM is if anything, an incredibly moral film, almost Christian in its way!
When the movie starts, Rae's boyfriend Ronnie (played by Justin Timberlake, and he does just fine, in case you wondered) is about to join the military. Rae is worried, because Ronnie is the only thing keeping her from screwing anything that moves. As soon as Ronnie leaves Rae drops to the ground and writhes, her need for sexual relief overcoming her like delirium tremens.
I suppose one could argue this is exploitation in and of itself. Psychologists tell us there really isn't such a thing as nymphomania, at least in the sense we commonly talk about. The term has generally been used to label a woman that someone deems has been having too much sex. (It's a fairly sexist word, as gender-opposite of nymphomaniac would simply be a "Player.") Supposedly nymphomaniacs (or people afflicted with hypersexuality, and no, that doesn't mean they are addicted to me), have a sexual addiction that compels them to have sex the way some people drink or gamble, often without joy and usually destroying their relationships and life. That's pretty hard to swallow (no pun intended), but I guess it makes sense. On the other hand, how do you tell the difference between someone who has an addiction that he/she can't control and someone who just can't keep it in his pants and has the opportunity?
Well, the question's moot, at least as far as BSM's concerned. We never figure out why Rae is the way she is. We have inklings of insight into her past (I'll give you three guesses), but no magic formula as to why she turned into a complete lunatic who feels compelled to jeopardize her relationships and even her own safety have sex as often as possible.
On the other side of the coin is Lazarus. His wife has left him; a blow Lazarus just can't seem to shake. (Wait 'til you see WHO his wife left him for.) Crushed in spirit, Lazarus has turned back to playing the blues, something he did in his younger wilder days. (The term "Black Snake Moan" actually comes from an old Blues song by Muddy Waters.) Lazarus has had his faith tested, and when he comes upon Rae, beat up and unconscious, wearing nothing but a Rebel half shirt and white panties, lying in the dirt out by his farm, Lazarus takes her into his home and nurses her back to health. (I know what you're thinking: how is this not an exploitation film? You just have to trust me here.)
As I was sitting in the theatre watching, three questions immediately came to mind:
- Why on Earth would Lazarus not take Rae to the hospital, or at least call an ambulance?
- When will Lazarus succumb to his loneliness over his wife and sleep with Rae?
- How on earth do Rae's panties stay white when she's been in the dirt for so long?
The first question is more or less answered, an answer I wouldn't have thought of, which just goes to show me how much I have to learn; as knowledgeable about race as I think I am.
As for the second question, well, that's answered too. Whereas an exploitation film would definitely have these two knocking unbelievable boots pretty darn quickly, that's not what Craig Brewer's about. Lazarus has decided that "curing" Rae of her evil sexy ways is his redemption, and the two of them, while bonding on all sorts of levels, do not enter into a sexual union. After all, as much as it might make sense, it's the only way Rae knows how to relate to men, and would definitely not get her off the path she's on.
(As for the third question, that I leave to the gods, but I more than bet that any woman watching would be asking this question at least 20 times.)
So Lazarus is going to "save" Rae. This means he has to keep her with him until she will no longer sleep with boys just to look at them. And what's the best way to keep her there? Chain her up, of course!
I suppose there is a weird sort of logic to what he's doing. One might classify every one of Lazarus's actions as "it seemed like a good idea at the time." Luckily Samuel Jackson totally sells this, so we have no problem believing that he's trying to do the right thing, and not set up his own reverse-plantation.
As you can imagine, the small Tennessee town where Lazarus and Rae reside are not all that happy or understanding of the situation, and more on that I will leave to you to discover.
It's not until almost the very end of the picture that we get our "exploitation scene." Lazarus decides to break out his guitar at the local honky-tonk and play some blues. Rae (by now actually in some clothes) goes with him to dance. Lazarus sheds his insecurities and becomes the Samuel L. Jackson we know and love, if only for a few minutes. And Rae? Well, she'd have given Salome a run for her money in procuring John the Baptist's head.
The scene is easily the coolest of the movie, and the most enjoyable, but from a message standpoint doesn't seem to fit. After all, if Rae is going to avoid her rampant sexual behavior she probably needs to stay away from these clubs, and Lazarus probably isn't going to find Jesus by singing about killing people. Luckily no ill comes from the scene, and we pass it off as Craig Brewer allowing his characters to blow off some steam. (I mean: you have a movie this sexual; you have to deliver at least SOME of the goods, right?)
At this point we need to talk about Mr. Jackson and Miss Ricci. Both performances blow you off the screen, and would be (in my opinion) dead-fire Oscar nominees if the film had been released in December as it was intended. That it was eventually released in March (to almost zero box office) tells me that someone in marketing didn't have faith in the film. I guess I can see why: the movie absolutely doesn't fit the ad campaign, which could only piss people off who came expecting SHOWGIRLS: THE DIRTY SOUTH REVERSE MANDINGO VERSION.
But that is to take nothing away from the actors. Samuel Jackson gives another in a long line of powerful performances. His Lazarus is tough and fragile at the same time, and he plays him to the hilt. For Samuel to play someone this broken—considering his reputation—takes a lot of courage. Even more impressive (in terms of what she is risking) is Ricci. This girl just doesn't get enough credit for the roles she takes. Here she plays an almost psychotic girl, afflicted with—I dunno: SOMETHING—and she never breaks stride. Ricci plays most of the movie with a chain around her waist, in her underwear, and never once blinks. She just goes for it, and it's the kind of bravery that maybe two or three other stars in Hollywood are capable of. Christina somehow has to give a performance that is utterly sexual but at the same time make it credible that Jackson's Lazarus would not lust after and bed her, but would pity and want to save her. The two of them have amazing chemistry, and I would still love to see some recognition come next winter.
This leaves only the subject matter itself. BLACK SNAKE MOAN is a difficult film in many respects. The theatre screening I attended held mostly high school kids, who clearly could not handle the mature themes they saw. Their retreat was to make jokes and not take it seriously. I can see doing that. I saw BASIC INSTINCT in high school, and we did much of the same thing. But BSM is not a sexy thriller, for all its trappings and plot devices. It is a serious film about a lot of tough issues. Racism. Poverty. Sex. Violence. Fidelity. Relgion. Temptation. Redemption. Forgiveness. Healing. You name it: BLACK SNAKE MOAN deals with it in some way.
You may not like what the movie is saying. You may not even understand what the movie is saying, but no serious person can walk away from the film with any other idea than they have just witnessed a thoughtful movie with a lot of things to say.
Even if they never did explain how that underwear stays so white.