Black Snake Moan as postsouthern fable.
BEFORE THE FILM BLACK SNAKE MOAN WAS RELEASED IN MARCH OF 2007, it set off a firestorm of criticism among commentators mainly because of the advance promotional poster showing a scantily clad young white woman bound in chains and kneeling before an older virile black male, both parts portrayed by recognizable actors, Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson. Given that the film released previously by the director, Craig Brewer, had been the provocative Hustle and Flow in 2005, with its Academy Award winning song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," some saw the film as another exploitation of old and new Southern/racial tensions (Johnson). The critic for the New York Times noted, "A white woman, a black man and a chain; it's hard to think of an image more likely to inflame the demons of the American id" (Scott), and a reviewer for a Richmond, Virginia, newspaper obliged by letting his id loose: "Black Snake Moan is strictly for perverts.... It's one of those exploitation films that make Southerners resentful of the Northerners who make them," films that "preyed on Northern fears that all Southerners were racist, lust-crazed, subhuman and ignorant" (Neman).
The poster itself was clearly designed to both provoke and reflect on a variety of ideas and attitudes. The legend, "Everything is hotter down South," only contributes to the notion that the film is a typical exploitation of the Mandingo tradition of unbound lust on the Southern plantation, the 1975 film by Richard Fleischer that gave new meaning to Confederate degeneracy and forbidden interracial sex. It is with the same frame of mind that the poster is designed to emulate the cover of a comic book, for many the lowest possible cultural denominator. The title is emblazoned at the top in bright red and yellow against a black background in the top quarter, the area reserved for comic book titles. To the left is an indicia which on the comic book is devoted to the date, the issue number, and the publisher, as on DC and Marvel publications. However, this information has been replaced by a symbolic heart wrapped in chains, the meaning of which becomes clear in the film to suggest that stability and security may be more important than freedom in affairs of the heart. Some viewers will also recall, no doubt, the country song recorded by Hank Williams and released after his death in 1953, "Take these chains from my heart and set me free." To the right at the top of the cover the seal of approval of the Comics Code Authority would normally appear, but a comic book cover with such an image would never pass muster, so it is missing. The edges of this faux comic book cover are frayed, discolored, and torn, to suggest that it has had many readers and has been passed around among the young males in the fashion of one of the pornographic comic books, called Tijuana Bibles, although they were usually smaller in size. In other words, everything suggests poor taste, salacious trash, and adolescent immaturity, which does little service to the actual nature of the film. But then such posters were meant to attract audiences, not to inform them.
In another way, however, the main image does challenge a good many conventional traditions. Any portrayal of an older black man and a younger blonde white girl automatically triggers memories of Uncle Tom and Little Eva in Harriet Beecher Stowe's classic tale of interracial dependency Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). It is clear in this case, however, that we do not have a fawning, submissive, and worshipful Tom or an angelic, innocent, and chaste Little Eva. Rather the roles have been radically altered with a threatening, angry black man who has subdued and chained a lusty white girl. Of course, the chains invoke the entire history of slavery in the South and the subjugation of the African American, but once again, things are different. This time the enslaved is the white woman, that vessel of purity and virtue who, according to social tradition, was to be protected at all cost from the lustful black buck, whose sole desire in life was to rape her. While the full poster, then, may suggest the tawdry and the cheap, the image effects a radical change in the traditional ways of seeing things, as does the entire film.
Although many reviewers saw Black Snake Moan as another Northern film exploiting the South, the irony is that the writer and director, Craig Brewer, is a Southerner, born in Virginia and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, a city rich in the history of the African American experience through music, culture, and politics. It is Brewer's intention to explore that history through music in a series of films. As he has reported in the commentary that accompanies the DVD version of the film, while Hustle and Flow was devoted to rap, Black Snake Moan is his blues movie, and forthcoming are films based on country and soul music.
In the brief black and white documentary clip that introduces the film, Mississippi blues singer Son House (Eddie James House, Jr., 1902-1988) says that there "Ain't but one kind of blues," and that's about a man and a woman in love, the kind of love that hides all faults and makes people do things they don't want to do. But when one deceives the other, that leaves one sad and blue, and the only outlet is to sing about it. "I'm talking about the blues!" he concludes. In seeking a specific song that would define and frame the film, Brewer turned to a number written and recorded in 1927 by Texas blues musician Blind Lemon Jefferson (1893-1929) called "Black Snake Moan." Jefferson, according to Brewer, sang about things that he couldn't see that might harm him in his room, like bugs and snakes. In addition to its obvious phallic and sexual significance, the song title was also a metaphor for his blindness and came to personify his fears and anxieties in general. So the song brought together all of the things Brewer said he wanted to explore in his blues movie: "anxiety, fear, and unconditional love."
In various interviews Brewer has cited the works of Flannery O'Connor, Erskine Caldwell, Tennessee Williams, and Harper Lee as sources of inspiration (Zacharek), all writers who created characters, often in states of spiritual disrepair, who seek redemption through religion, lust, compassion, or law. There is another literary antecedent as well, in that the film appears partly to have been based on the classic British novel Silas Marner (1861) by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans). There is a parallel in that the novel is about a miserly, reclusive old weaver, Silas Marner, who discovers in the snow a wandering child who has left the body of her dead mother. He decides to keep the child, name her Eppie (after Hepzibah), and in the process of raising her, give up his attachment to money for another kind of treasure, the love of golden-haired Eppie. While love and redemption may be at the heart of Silas Marner, it is about a good many other things as well: class distinctions in rural Britain, familial loyalty, the notion of community, blind religion, infidelity, and ethics, or reward and punishment, in human conduct. The only similarity with Brewer's film resides in the fact that Black Snake Moan is also about a reclusive man who finds redemption through a young woman taken into his home. All of the other surrounding details are radically different.
The film opens with a torrid scene of love-making between Rae, played by Christina Ricci, and Ronnie, a soldier about to leave for Iraq, featuring Justin Timberlake acting in his seventh film role. Timberlake, also a native of Memphis, is best known as an enormously successful pop singer and musician, and for his high-profile celebrity relationship with friend and fellow pop singer Britney Spears, which lasted from 1999 to 2002, as well as his part in the notorious "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson during the Super Bowl telecast in 2004. He has always had an interest in acting too, and he handled the role here with considerable skill. Despite the strong relationship between the characters Rae and Ronnie, he abandons her to do his duty, and possessed by overpowering urges, she turns to liquor, drugs, and sexual promiscuity to ease her pain. The events of the night after his departure leave her raped and beaten unconscious by the side of the road near the home of a local black farmer named Lazarus. He takes her in, treats her wounds, and realizing that he will be unable to hold her long enough to help her get over her self-destructiveness, he chains her to the radiator in his house.
In the exchanges that follow, we learn that Lazarus has his own sad story to tell. He was a local blues singer who gave it up to settle down with a younger wife and raise a family on his farm. But she deserts him and goes off with his own brother. In a desperate act to restore balance in his own life, he determines to provide some balance in Rae's by establishing something like a family, or at least a father figure. She has been a victim of sexual abuse as a child, which her own mother did nothing to stop, and has never had the parental supervision to provide guidelines for normal behavior. The radiator and the chain, then, become not symbols of imprisonment but of a connection to the security and stability she needs.
It is the return of Lazarus to his talent as a blues singer that saves them both and brings them back to the community they have rejected. Rae becomes strong enough to confront her mother about the abuse she allowed to happen to her when she was a child. Lazarus begins to open up emotionally and responds to the attention of a pharmacist named Angela, played by S. Epatha Merkerson, best known for her role in the television series Law and Order. The recovery process is celebrated at a local juke joint where Lazarus performs publicly for the first time in years, and Rae merges into the crowd of dancers giving themselves over to the saving grace of music. Brewer has said of Rae's dance, "It's a Pentecostal dance that celebrates the freeing of demons in her head." It is like a Flannery O'Connor moment of grace, a spiritual epiphany.
Ronnie returns home unexpectedly, having been released because of anxiety attacks that disable him. When he finds Rae living with Lazarus, he first reacts violently but then listens to reason with the counsel of Reverend R. L., a friend to Lazarus, played by John Cothran. Despite their emotional disabilities, Rae and Ronnie decide to marry in the hope of establishing some normalcy through love and support; Lazarus will give the bride away. Lazarus has a better chance of happiness than the hapless couple, as suggested by one of the final shots in which he holds the hand of Angela, his new chain of security in life.
What Brewer has accomplished is a postsouthern film about the South that overturns many of the expectations we have accrued about the portrayal of Southern culture in film history. What most Americans know about the South has been derived from popular culture and motion pictures, beginning with Birth of a Nation (1915), epitomized in Gone with the Wind (1939), and coming down to the present through such radically disparate byways as To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) and Mandingo (1975). Among other things, postsouthern literature has been defined as work that "calls into question traditional assumptions about southern culture" (Hovis 127), and Black Snake Moan does just that with many of the film conventions of conduct and culture in the South.
For example, when Lazarus finds Rae beaten and half-naked in the road, as he bends over her, no crowd of white men shows up, and without allowing Lazarus a word of explanation, assumes the worst and strings him up to the nearest tree to die after emasculating him and setting him on fire. Without much exaggeration, that is likely what would happen in one way or another in most films about the South. When Lazarus drives Rae to town to confront her mother, when she steps out of the truck, no white sheriff shows up to see why a black man is with her or if he is simply driving Miss Daisy. His explanation to the two old men sitting near the truck next to his is sufficient: "She's a friend of mine." No other black character in a film would likely get by with such an answer.
There is another major cultural stereotype challenged by this film, what has come to be called the "magical negro" or the "mystical negro." American literature has had any number of black characters, from the time of Uncle Remus and Huck Finn's Jim to the present, whose main function seems to be to benefit, to save, or to enlighten white characters. These characters are patient, wise, and often possess some magical power or earthly wisdom that can work to redeem or heal others. Indeed, they often sacrifice their own lives to save their white superiors. In a speech at Yale University in 2001, Spike Lee popularized this concept by noting the large number of super-duper black characters to emerge in film in recent years, as in The Green Mile (1999), The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), and The Family Man (2000), although they go back as far as 1958 in The Defiant Ones or Driving Miss Daisy in 1989. According to Lee, such characters only serve to recycle outmoded images of "the 'noble savage' and the 'happy slave'" (Gonzalez). President Obama has been identified with the concept as when Rush Limbaugh broadcast the satirical song by Paul Shanklin, "Barack the Magic Negro," during the election in 2008.
At first glance, Lazarus would appear to be another addition to this tradition, in that he reaches out and attempts to save Rae from herself. But things are actually reversed in Black Snake Moan. It is Rae who saves Lazarus. She is effectively beyond full redemption throughout the film. Her restlessness, her fits of fevered desire remain with her. Her insecurities and broken self-esteem cannot improve in such a short period of time. Their causes are too deep. Rae is much like the character Brick, in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, who was also trapped in a state of spiritual disrepair. Williams said, "The moral paralysis of Brick was a root thing in his tragedy, and to show a dramatic progression would obscure the meaning of that tragedy" (168), which is why he objected to Elia Kazan's desire to end the play performance on a note of reconciliation between Brick, Maggie, and Big Daddy. No single act of love or compassion can cure a lifetime of the abuse and degradation Rae has suffered. The final scene of Rae and Ronnie, trapped in their car between two monster trucks on the highway, as Ronnie's anxiety attack kicks in, symbolizes the uncertainty of their lives together. Rae puts it more bluntly when she says, "I think we are fucked up, both of us." Some things have been righted for them but not much resolved.
Lazarus, on the other hand, like his biblical namesake, has been raised from the dead. He has reclaimed the power of his music, the healing influence of channeling his despair into the blues, and the importance of compassion and forgiveness for his fellow human beings. With his Bible in his hand, but a clear eye on the brute realities of life, he allows himself to fall in love again, this time with a selfless woman who loves him equally in return. The black snake moan will be banished from his doorstep. Rae, of course, has been largely responsible for this conversion, so perhaps we are in the presence of another cultural stereotype--the magical white slut. In any case, this film is not business as usual.
Brewer has said several times that this film is not to be taken literally. After his producer, Stephanie Allain, viewed the finished film, she realized, she said, that it was "larger than life. It's clearly a metaphor, it's clearly a tale. And it's not meant to be taken completely literally.... Ultimately it's a film about the healing power of being connected to someone else. And the chain is... just a metaphor for really holding onto something." As Brewer has explained, "Really we are doing a fable. We're not trying to do some sort of a realistic portrayal of the South.... It's really interesting because as much as people, I think, are going to get caught up in the controversy of a young white girl chained up by an old black man, this is actually a religious exploration on my part.... It's faith, it's family, it's community." For those offended by the imagery, he adds defiantly, using a country figure of speech, it's "our dog. We get to kick it, you know. So we're goosing it a little bit."
In the process, then, Brewer has also taken some of the traditional elements of Southern film and subjected them to reevaluation by turning them inside out. His South is a richer and more complex one in which the usual expectations are thwarted and new nuances of human nature between people of both races are allowed. His intention is to drive the black snake moan out of everyone's door, as suggested by the fact that Rae's ragged and torn t-shirt bears the crossed flags of both the Confederacy and the United States.
Allain, Stephanie. Commentary. Black Snake Moan. DVD.
Black Snake Moan. Dir. Craig Brewer. Perf. Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, and Justin Timberlake. Paramount Vantage, 2007. Paramount Home Entertainment DVD, 2007.
Brewer, Craig. Commentary. Black Snake Moan. DVD.
Gonzalez, Susan. "Director Spike Lee claims 'same old' black stereotypes in today's films." Yale Bulletin & Calendar 29.21 (2 March 2001): 3.
Hovis, George. "Postsouthern Literature." The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Volume 9: Literature. Ed. M. Thomas Inge. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2008. 126-31.
Johnson, Ross. "Hollywood's One Remaining Taboo Found in 'Black Snake Moan.'" New York Times 23 April 2006: 15.
Neman, Daniel. "Review: Black Snake Moan." Richmond TimesDispatch 2 March 2007: n.p.
Scott, A. O. "Chained to the Radiator? It's for Her Own Good." New York Times 2 March 2007: 8.
Williams, Tennessee. The Theatre of Tennessee Williams. Vol. III. New York: New Directions, 1971.
Zacharek, Stephanie. "We're Bound to Each Other." Salon.com. Salon Media Group, 28 Feb. 2007. Web. 29 July 2010.
M. THOMAS INGE
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|Author:||Inge, M. Thomas|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2011|
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