Movie review: Black Snake Moan

  • February 25, 2007

Black Snake Moan takes a great starting point and turns it into a bad movie.

blacksnakemoanThe Parable of the Good Samaritan is one of the most original, virtuoso acts of storytelling in human history. In the standard English translation of the Bible, Jesus took eight sentences to set the human imagination reeling through millennia — leaving us with no easy answer to the lawyer’s question, “Who is my neighbour.”

Parallels between Jesus’ great parable and Black Snake Moan are not subtle. Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) finds Rae (Christina Ricci) beaten and abandoned by the side of the road. He carries her into his home, binds up her wounds and cares for her when nobody else would.

The divergences from Jesus’ tale aren’t subtle either. Even casual readers of the Bible will notice that the Good Samaritan of the original didn’t keep the man beaten by robbers tied to the radiator with a 10-metre long chain locked around his waist. In Jesus’ version, binding up the man’s wounds doesn’t mean binding him up.

Rae’s wounds are more than physical. The poor girl, town tramp and drug abuser is a victim of childhood sexual abuse. It isn’t just the priest and the Levite who have passed by on the other side of Rae’s train-wreck of a life. Her mother also keeps the girl at bay with a wall of contempt between her and her troubled offspring.

Like the Samaritan of the original, Lazarus is an unlikely rescuer. A one-time wild man who played blues in the most disreputable of bars, he is now an angry and aging farmer who has has spent years earning respect in his community and church only to have his wife abandon him for his younger brother.

By throwing together an old black man as rescuer and a young white woman as the rescued in the rural south, the movie parallels the unlikely pairing of a Jew (the victim was travelling from Jerusalem) and a Samaritan (the sort who would never go to Jerusalem).

It would also seem that writer-director Craig Brewer has understood one of the subtleties of Jesus’ tale. In answer to a question from a high class Jew, a lawyer, Jesus tells a story about people on the margins of society — a man heading away from Jerusalem and its temple while priests and Levites, the establishment, are heading up to the city. When the robbery victim at last falls into the hands of a Samaritan, he falls beyond the pale of Israel’s society. The lawyer who asked Jesus “Who is my neighbour” could only have stood there wondering what these people in Jesus’ tale had to do with him.

Black Snake Moan is also about people on the margins — the ones who live in trailers and whose only hope for a better life is to sign up for military duty in Iraq. It is marketed with a poster evoking the blacksploitation movies of the 1970s, those movies about the poor and outcast who had become invisible in postwar America. By throwing the lives of poor whites and rural blacks onto the screen, Black Snake Moan gets Jesus’ editorial slant.

What Black Snake Moan doesn’t get is that Jesus offers up kindness and solidarity among the poor as antidote to the machinery of contempt and abuse the poor have suffered through. Instead, the movie offers up a kind of magic exorcism — a series of cathartic moments which are supposed to convince the audience Rae and Lazarus have healed each other. But a night of drinking and dirty dancing in a bar seems an unlikely cure for a childhood of sexual abuse covered over by drug use and sexual pyromania.

The gaping holes in the plot might be forgiven on the excuse that blues is to the American soul what opera is to Italians — a grand canvass for emotions and not the territory of logic. But even the silliest operas need to finally give some reason for the redemption of their characters. It can’t just be that everybody has a good cry and then we’re all better.

Jackson’s impersonation of a blues singer will not be forgiven. He is not a singer of any sort, and the most convincing of the musical numbers actually features Jackson delivering something much more like a dramatic recitation than a melody.

The best moments in this two-hour time waster come at the beginning and the end in black and white archival footage of legendary blues man Son House explaining the relationship between blues and love and betrayal. They should have left out all that pseudodrama in between.

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