Bright Lights Film Journal

Moanin’ Low: On Craig Brewer’s Black Snake Moan

Stick to the trailer

If you’ve seen the trailer to Black Snake Moan, stop while you’re ahead. Those two minutes of Samuel L. Jackson’s self-righteousness and Christina Ricci’s writhing make for an infinitely more entertaining and thought-provoking piece of cinema than the two hours from which they sprang.

The film’s title suggests a cheeky reference to blaxploitation films of the 1970s, one of which was actually called Blacksnake (1973). Consisting of films made mostly by white directors for black urban audiences, the genre won immense popularity with the exaggerated sexuality and violence of its characters, but eventually fell out of favor with culture guardians for its reliance on racial stereotypes.

Unfortunately, writer/director Craig Brewer seems to have had little interest in genre subversion when making this picture. The laughs that made their way into the preview were actually the only ones in a film that turned out to be painfully earnest, moralistic, and blind to the potential of its own wild, unsettling premise — a black man chaining up a white-trash whore to teach her right from wrong.

Black Snake Moan quickly skims over anything truly outrageous in these circumstances and delivers us safely into a bland, politically correct heart-warmer. And the fault, to be fair, must be placed squarely with the writer/director. Christina Ricci, as the love-starved, sex-dependent Rae, delivers one of the most exciting female performances in recent cinema. Her raw, unapologetic sexuality glues your eyes to the screen while suggesting that the honorable thing to do would be to look away. The guilt and irresistibility of watching her is akin to watching porn, but with a constant undertow that makes you recognize what a sicko you are for liking porn so much.

Unfortunately, Brewer deprives Ricci’s character of her wild energy too early in the film. After Rae finds herself half-naked and chained up in the home of a strange black man, hardly five minutes elapse before she resigns herself to his plan of keeping her prisoner until her soul is saved. Imagine Misery, but this time James Caan decides, after a nice welcome dinner, that Kathy Bates isn’t so bad, and that a long holiday with her is just what he needs.

In Black Snake Moan, Rae’s keeper is the same Samuel L. Jackson whose wallet was labeled “Bad Motherfucker” in Pulp Fiction. Here, as Lazarus, Jackson is neither bad nor sexual, but rather, to great disappointment, endlessly upright and chaste. As with Ricci’s character, Brewer retires Jackson’s erotic cache way too early in the film, bringing forth a parental altruist who safely cures Rae of her wickedness without giving her any black snake to moan over.

And why, it might be asked, aren’t Rae and Lazarus permitted to fight it out and then fall in love? The film’s answer seems to be that they’re both better off with their own kind. Lazarus safeguards Rae’s newfound sanctity so that she can become a faithful wife for an anxiety-ridden white soldier (Justin Timberlake). Lazarus is left to content himself with a lotioned-up S. Epatha Merkerson in her Sunday best — let me just say that a less sexually-gratifying reward could hardly be imagined.

A graying black man, it seems, belongs with a graying black woman, and a wounded white girl belongs with an equally wounded white boy — when the one thing the audience wanted was to see Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson fall into each other’s arms, equally redeemed, saved, and raised from the dead through this “unnatural” union.