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Movie Review: Black Snake Moan

 

 

Saturday, May 19, 2007.

 

 

 

By Steven Barnes

 

 

 

Well, I can feel that I avoided this one for almost a week, but finally couldn’t resist. It simply screamed “Sambo Alert,” with Sameul L. Jackson, America’s favorite badass  and an advertising campaign ripped out of an unreleased 1971 Roger Corman exploitation movie. A white woman chained up by a black man…oh boy oh boy…

But something told me I wasn’t quite right about this one. That, yes, America has a real problem with black male sexuality, and yes, setting this movie in the American South meant that they were consciously playing with cultural image dynamite, and yes, it positively reeked of “spiritual guide,” where a poor black Southern farmer, abandoned by his wife (neutered) would put everything on the line to “save” a nymphomaniacal white girl who, of course, would have sex with everyone but him, or anyone black…

But that’s not quite what happened here. I don’t want to get into exactly how they confounded my expectations, but let’s say that Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) the old farmer, has his own agenda, his own needs and hopes and dreams, that have been ground into dust by life.

 

That Rae (a fabulous Christina Ricci) is as horribly wounded a creature as I’ve seen onscreen in many years.. And that somehow…this movie is about how they heal each other. The palliative quality of simple, selfless love. Of the wounds inflicted by weak or corrupted parenting. Of the value of discipline. And the unifying and revelatory power of music, especially The Blues.

Now, Craig Brewer, the writer of “Hustle and Flow” gets on my nerves with this one. There was a pimp movie where the pimp never got laid. A perfect example of a white dude who thinks he’s “down with the brothers” and understands, but is a victim of his own unconscious prejudices.

 

Yes, I’m sure he is. That he would be many times more likely to present two white people making love in a simple, elegant two-shot than two black people. And would be oblivious to his own preferences in this regard.

But he’s more than that. This film could have been made with Lazarus played by a white actor, and the entire tenor changes. Or Rae could have been black. Or the races could have been reversed. Or it might not have been placed in the South.

 

By doing what he did, and then flaunting it in advertising across the country, he knew he was directly, and fearlessly, plucking the tripwires of some of the most volatile imagery in the world: slavery, interracial sex, the terrifying black male rampant.

He knew how his audiences would squirm. And there are at least a dozen moments when Brewer, as director, deliberately positioned camera and actors to suggest sexual poses or relationships contrary to the emotional or textual content of the scenes. Messing with the audience. This reminds me a bit of “The Great White Hope” where the black champ is in bed with his wife, and they are engaged in playful, verbal foreplay.

 

I knew, just knew that in audiences across America, white folks were squirming. Then…the police break in and arrest him. And those same white audiences both sighed with relief and felt disgust at the fact that those cops, unjustly arresting James Earl Jones, have done them a service: helped them avoid watching something they couldn’t admit really, really didn’t want to see. The director turned their own emotions against them. Brilliant.

There’s some of that going on here. Brewer is almost certainly not aware of how much the poison runs in his own veins, but he definitely knows its running in other people’s. And his intent, I think, is pure.

He understands the tortured, twisted history of race relations in America. The damage done to both sides. He is an artist, and one with his eyes relatively open. This is a lurid, sensationalistic film, an old-fashioned exploitation film with an amazingly moral core, a 1960s fable that could never have been made in the 1960s.

And I’ll be damned if I didn’t love it, all around. Fabulous work by Ricci, new actor Justin Timberlake, and America’s favorite badass himself. I’m going buy this one. This, I have to see again.

 

Steven Barnes is a novelist, television writer and art critics. He blogs as Darkush.

 

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