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Film Reviews
Black Snake Moan

by Vince Rogers

Memphis, Tennessee-based filmmaker Craig Brewer is a talented and visionary artist. He obviously understands and sincerely loves the South. Brewer’s second feature film Hustle & Flow was nearly perfect. Following the critical and commercial success of that Academy Award-winning effort, he vowed to make movies that would capture the special charms and rich heritage of his dearly beloved Nu-Old South. He promised to insure that the song of the South would be included in the symphony of American cinema.

Against all odds, Hustle & Flow succeeded at the inestimable task of making the story of D-Jay; a country, Black, middle aged, White woman pimpin,’ weed dealer with a dream, into the “Rocky” story of the new millennium. So in keeping with his mission of chronicling the sound and the fury of the Southland, Brewer returned to his Memphis roots for his next film. He dug down deep into the gutbucket of Tennessee tall tales and dredged up a Black Snake Moan. The title of the film is taken from an old Blues tune by Blind Lemon Jefferson, which deals with a fundamental Blues theme, the pain of love between a man and a woman.

To tell this particular version of that ages old story, Brewer focused his Kinescope on Lazarus Woods, played by Samuel L. Jackson in typically superb fashion. Laz is a broken down Blues man turned butterbean farmer in the midst of a lost “Love Jones.” He needs to find a way to exorcise his demons before he does something he’ll regret. Miraculously, “Old Scratch” seems to present him with a way to redeem himself. One great morning he finds a beat up young White pussycat doll named Rae (a fine performance by Christina Ricci) on the side of the road. He learns that she has a habit of catting around town with any old body and he decides to “cure her of her wickedness” by chaining her to his hot tin roof shack’s radiator. He succeeds in putting her back on the right track, just in time for her soldier boy fiancé Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) to bring sexy back home and make an honest woman out of her. Brewer definitely cannot be accused of lacking ambition and imagination. However, unlike the intense frustration and combustible ambition that ran hot throughout Hustle & Flow, Black Snake Moan has the feel of a smoldering pine straw needle fire that has already been put out. The story seems to be hopelessly weighted down by its limitations, much like the weight of the heavy chain wrapped around Rae’s waist.

Tales of redemption like this are usually the formula for a can‘t miss tear jerker. People usually eat this stuff up like a plate of fried chicken and hot buttered cornbread. Unfortunately, Black Snake Moan fails to convince the audience to feel that Laz and Rae have experienced any true redemption and thus prevents viewers from becoming emotionally invested in the characters or the story. Black Snake Moan ultimately doesn’t work because it is weighted down with too many unanswered questions and implausabile plotlines. Whenever there is an event in the story that won’t be easy to explain, Brewer solves this problem of plausibility by simply skipping ahead to the next scene without explanation. There are ultimately no surprises in the movie and everything you expect to happen does happen without exception.

The idea of a Black man in the Deep South keeping a White woman chained to his radiator is intriguing and conjures up unlimited possibilities and plot twists. Instead all we get is some old Southern Baptist Bible thumping, some light Sunday sermonizing and a Gospel hymn or two. Ultimately, the films initial display of imagination becomes its eventual undoing. Just like the limitations imposed by the chain around Rae’s waist, the limitations of the storyline begs the question, “How far can this thing really go????” The answer quickly becomes apparent that it can’t go very far. When Lazarus whips out the “Good Book” and his guitar, it becomes pretty clear that he’s just going to rescue this fallen Angel with some old scriptures and get his groove back by playing some ole “Down Home” Blues.

Despite being disappointed with Black Snake Moan, I am still impressed by Craig Brewer’s imagination, authenticity, attention to detail and his sense of place and story. It would appear that Black Snake Moan had all of the tall tale hyperbole and “Man you got to be lying” implausibility that makes Southern storytelling such a rich and entertaining source. However, like many a great story being told on Magnolia shaded front porches and in Juke Joint pool halls all over the South, some stories seem to work a lot better when the details are left to the listener’s imagination. Hopefully Craig Brewer has many more great stories to tell though and Black Snake Moan was just a whimper before he fires his next big bang.

(All photos © Paramount Classics)

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