Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Black Snake Moan-- Blues and Redemption in the old South

Just when you thought that movies were becoming far too formulaic and trite and sequeled, along comes a movie like "Black Snake Moan" which blows through your mind like a breath of fresh air. Let me be clear that this is a gritty movie, which, while it eschews violence for the most part, nevertheless portrays human life in the raw and so not surprisingly there is some brief nudity in this movie. This is not a movie to take 'yo momma' or your children to, but it is certainly one worth seeing and reflecting on, as it is a powerful story about redemption from sin and abuse and degradation.

The cast of this movie is superb-- Samuel L. Jackson plays, appropriately enough, a man named Lazarus, who mainly helps someone else's life rise from the ashes (which in turn helps him rebound from being left by his wife Rose, who runs off with his baby brother!). Christina Ricci plays Rae, an abused young lady turned nymphomaniac, who can only do without sex for so long, and can't say no to anyone, however abusive. And then there is her boyfriend tenderly played by Justin Timberlake, who has his own peck of trouble-- including anxiety attacks and the like. It gets him booted out of the National Guard. There are various excellent supporting actors and actresses including Epatha Merkerson, a long time star on that longest running TV drama "Law and Order".

The setting of the movie is a small old southern town in a mostly rural area in Tennessee. The culture depicted here could even be from the deeper south, but in any case the focus is mainly on African American experience in the south and the experience of what unfortunately is usually called "white trash". The latter exemplar played quite convincingly by Christina Ricci whose life makes even risque country songs look ordinary. There was some initial controversy about this movie because of its use of the 'N' word, however since it is basically not used by white people of black people, this controversy came and went.

Lest you think this movie is mainly about the blues, actually it is not, though there are two brief black and white clips in the movie of a real blues legend (extra brownie points to the blogger who can guess who it is-- here's a hint. Its definitely not B. B. King). This movie is mainly about people who have the blues, and learn to sing about it and so transcend their experience. As it turns out Samuel L. Jackson is not a bad blues man, even playing some slide guitar and singing. The title of the movie comes from a song called Black Snake Moan which talks about what happens when deep hurt, despair, loneliness, darkness crawls into your life like an ole dangerous snake.

Craig Brewer has taken on this delicate subject, and he is clearly not afraid to take risks, as is shown by the extended scenes where scantily clad Rae is chained to Lazarus' radiator in the front room of his house! This is the only restraint system Lazarus can think off which will prevent the woman going off and doing more damage to herself. To Brewer's credit the story line doesn't stray into an improbable love or sex relationship between Lazarus and Rae, more like a father daughter relationship breaks out as things develop.

Is it possible for even really messed up people to be 'born again' and change their ways? This is the question this movie asks, all the while also asking us to ponder how far we would go to help that process of redemption, or would we quickly tire of helping and write a person off as a lost cause. Would we sacrifice our reputation in a gossipy town for the sake of pulling someone out of the dark pit of sin and abuse and suffering? What would Jesus have done? Come to think of it-- what did he do with prostitutes and tax collectors, and the more notorious sinners of his world?

Christianity as portrayed in this movie is a living thing, but we see weak practitioners of it. Even the minister ends up drinking and dancing in a lascivious manner in the juke joint at one point, and his little speech about various definitions of heaven leaves a good deal to be desired as well. But there are also poignant moments when Rae begins singing "This little light of mine.." or Epatha beautifully sings a chorus of "There is a Balm in Gilead". And lest we be ready to polish the halo of Lazarus, we hear him bragging at one point about his sexual conquests to a young black boy who has just sampled Rae. But frankly I've seen this movie before-- played out in churches in real life. Sometimes this movie is so real it hurts. And there was one line that kept coming to my mind as I watched this movie-- anyone whose life is not messed up in the various ways depicted in this movie should be reminding themselves "there but for the grace of God, go I", for frankly all of us have sinned and fallen short of God's glory in one way or another. So shall we point fingers, or hold out a hand to the one who is lost and drowning in their own sin? This movie effectively asks and answers that question.

9 comments:

Adam Gonnerman said...

A co-worker who is not particularly religious saw this movie a week or so ago and kept going on and on about how good it was. The description he gave of it sounded rather odd, but your review clarifies it. Thanks.

Tim Chambers said...

Would it be Son House?

Tim Chambers said...

Also, excellent review of the movie. Thank you for verbalizing the same feelings I had about this curious and interesting film.

John Adams said...

Is it Muddy Waters?

Nathan Brasfield said...

Wow, it's really good to read your good review of this movie. It was actually filmed in my town (yep home of Justin Timberlake) so I've been eager to see it but haven't got around to it yet. Thanks for writing about it!

Ben Witherington said...

Two excellent guess, one of which is closer to the mark than the other. Anybody remember Lightnin' Hawkins or Robert Johnson?

Ben Witherington said...

I meant Lightnin Hopkins

E. I. Sanchez said...

I wasn't sure if I should see this movie. I'm glad you did and shared your comments.

p.s. I really like that you take the time to write the blog. I'm sure you're pretty busy and I know blogging ain't easy. Thanks.

chad said...

this is my favorite of 2007 so far....w