With two major feature films under his belt, I think it's possible to start making some generalizations about indie writer-director Craig Brewer: he has an uncanny ability to capture community and place on film; he is gifted at using music for its narrative implications as much as for its sound; he is taken with stories about men leading empty lives and the process by which they restore meaning and dignity to their own existences; and he has an incredibly low opinion of women.
Misogyny was all over Hustle & Flow, and its Oscar-winning anthem which informs us that the reason it's hard to be a pimp is all the uppity bitches that just don't understand that you're supposed to let the man do all of your thinking for you in exchange for protection. And it's all over Black Snake Moan, a film that argues in complete sobriety that chaining a young woman to a radiator is a fair way to cure her of nymphomania.
Now, to be fair, that's not the whole movie. In fact, the 'chained to a radiator" sequence occupies, at most, one-third of the movie. And it's two hours long! So fully 80 minutes of Black Snake Moan are altogether not about chaining women to radiators. A lot of it is just about how it's not possible for a woman to enjoy sex without turning into a clap-ridden slut* who needs to mount every male in town that stands still long enough. Or how she also needs to fill herself up with every psychopharmacological substance that she can find in a backwater Southern town. Thus is Rae (Christina Ricci) when we first meet her, a perfect storm of male anxieties about the promiscuous female.
The other half of things is the conveniently-named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a former blues man whose shrill wife has just left him for his sad & sorry little brother (really, that's the sexual dynamic of the movie right there: the woman is apoplectic, the brother wants to apologise. I could just stop writing). One morning, Lazarus finds Rae lying in the middle of the road, the victim of an attempted rape, and a series of inevitable-in-retrospect occurrences lead him to chain her to a radiator in the hopes of taming the burning itch of horniness right out of her. It takes very little time for Rae to agree to the sensibility of this plan. If this had gone for the lurid grindhouse style sexploitation/blaxploitation that the poster seemed to promise, I would have at least understood what to do with it, although I would not likely have a higher opinion of its morality. But somehow it turns into a fable.
It makes me extraordinarily sad that we live in a culture where this even has to be stated, but chaining people to your radiator is a Wrong Thing To Do. This is not the opinion of Black Snake Moan. In this film, it is very much the case that Rae is distilled trouble and if not for the kindly ministrations of Lazarus, she would have surely died of whoredom. Every beat reinforces the idea that it takes a strong man to tame the wild girl; Rae's boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake, not at all memorable, which is to say that he's much better than I expected) is an anxiety-ridden shell who cannot save her, even though he is her One True Love and it causes her endless pain to betray him constantly - but she has to! He just won't chain her to a radiator and teach her respect!
I won't belabor the dialogue and imagery that constantly reinforces all of this, but its cumulative meaning could not be any clearer. Its shocking to see a film wear misogyny so proudly, perhaps even unknowingly, but it does. Not that it can't be "edgy" or "provocative" like some have claimed - misogyny is edgy and provocative, just not in a positive way.
Brewer is a great director, even so, and I pray that he is able to grow up someday, because his style is something to behold. He flawlessly captures the feeling of being in Tennessee in the depths of summer, and the film captures the slow rhythms of the rural south. It is a perfect encapsulation of physical space, much like the work of the region's other cinematic poet David Gordon Green, and if Brewer could only get some moral perspective on his work he might even someday surpass the quality of his perennially underappreciated colleague.
Where Black Snake Moan shines the brightest, to such a point that I almost wish I could overlook its significant ugliness, is in its great use of the blues. The opening of the film is a very old interview with a very old blues player (and a very good one) named Son House, who describes all blues as the difference between the male and female, when one lies about loving the other. This has not a damn thing to do with the movie, but it's a fantastic quote, and from this moment on, the film is positively saturated with the blues, even to the point where it's structured not unlike a blues song. The moments of greatest emotional release are all yoked to a blues song, including a rendition of the film's title number presented so dramatically that it quite nearly tricked me into believing the unnatural character development that it accompanies.
It's strange, I don't usually get worked up over representation when the craftsmanship is there, but Black Snake Moan is just so damn offensive, and it so wholly lacks self-awareness! 'tis pity. Eventually Craig Brewer will make a great movie. He's too good not to.
Significantly after selecting today's subject, I learned that this is Blog Against Sexism Day, and while I'm not one to join in on blogging activism, it seemed worth noting the coincidence, and saluting the efforts of those less solipsistic than I.