Thursday, January 3, 2008

Saving souls, one naked girl at a time

Black Snake Moan (2006) written and directed by Craig Brewer

I have been avoiding this film - my perception that the subject matter was lurid (young Southern white girl held "prisoner" by older black man in his home to "cure her of her wickedness") really repelled me when I first heard of it. Perhaps I was being too harsh in my initial dismissal of the film. Hmm, perhaps not. Based on the reviews, I am not alone is in having mixed feelings about it.

Rae (Christina Ricci) who might uncharitably be referred to as white trash is left beaten to a pulp, half naked, by the side of a road by the friend of her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) who has just left for military training.

The girl is troubled, promiscuous, indiscriminate about who she sleeps with. This is the "friend's" revenge on her after he tries to screw her and she laughs him off.

She is found by by the aptly named Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) who is recovering from his own troubles and regains his dignity and his sense of calm after his encounter with Rae. Lazarus is a blues musician turned farmer. His wife of many years has just left him for his younger brother. He ministers to the girl and it is not immediately understood why he keeps her rather than bring her to the hospital. He seems to have religious motives in helping her. As she is completely delusional and keeps trying to run out of the house, he chains her to the radiator. Hmm, interesting salvation technique Lazarus.

Oddly, her fits of promiscuity are presaged by almost epileptic fits of trembling. Perhaps this a medical condition that we, the general public, are unaware of?

But hey, why not throw some clothes on her Lazarus? Because it's more intriguing, or possibly sexy, to have a shapely, pretty girl like Ricci (whom I consider to be a talented otherwise) slithering around on the ground half naked and in chains? Okay Christina, we get it - you lost weight some time ago and you are in superb shape. For at least half of the film she is wandering around in a small cut off top with the Confederate flag, white panties and barefoot.

He walks her around the fields like a mule for exercise, puts vaseline on her wounds, lectures her on her promiscuity. I can't get past the silliness of having her in chains for much of the film. It's a voyeuristic, silly, sexist conceit. Even though we are meant to be reassured that Lazarus' interest is not sexual (he has his eyes set on a an older, pretty pharmacist who has taken a liking to him) the absurdity of a rational person chaining another to a radiator to rehabilitate her is so offensive, so patently meant to titillate that is hard to forgive the writer/ director this plot conceit.

Of course, after violent objecting to her confinement, Rae develops a sort of Stockholm syndrome and rather than try to escape she even avoids detection by outsiders. The chains come off and she has become a new person: more assertive of her rights: she confronts her mother about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her mother's boyfriend, she wears the clothes that Lazarus has purchased for her, visits a bar to hear Lazarus sing the blues. She seems mesmerized by Lazarus' singing, wrapping herself around his legs at his feet while he sings. Ai yi yi.

Ronnie returns, unfit for military combat and frantic about Rae's whereabouts. He eventually tracks her down, thinks she is sleeping with Lazarus, almost kills Lazarus but is talked out of it by the overpowering charisma and courage of Lazarus.

Here's where this "magical Negro" idiocy kicks in which I have talked about before ... you know there are a number of creative white people who believe that black people, because they have suffered a great deal in the past (and still do to a certain extent), can have these mystical powers of persuasion or healing. This film I think buys into this sentiment.

Lazarus persuades Ronnie to talk to a preacher friend and soon the couple is wed with Lazarus and his lady friend as witnesses. Ronnie wraps a silver chain around Rae's waist during the wedding ceremony as a symbol of what - her radical transformation? Her link to Ronnie? Her past suffering with Lazarus?

They leave and the last shot is a sign that perhaps both have changed and can help each other. Oh boy ... and all because of one brave, determined black man was willing to chain a white girl to a radiator.

1 comment:

salvatore said...

Years ago I read a wonderful long essay by Michael Ventura, published in Whole Earth. It was called "Hear that Long Snake Moan," on the history and origins of American music. Probably has nothing to do with film, but thought I'd mention it anyway.