Black Snake moans the blues

Craig Brewer knows that it’s hard out there for a pimp, or a film director. The road leading up to 2005’s “Hustle & Flow,” the film that catapulted him into the big leagues, was not an easy one. When financial woes put the film in an uncertain place and anxiety attacks overcame him, he looked toward that old familiar place: music.

Brewer’s relationship with music is such that a new creative process is never too far off. “It really begins with me riding around in my car, or hanging out in my house, and blaring music, and then these images start coming to me,” he said.

The result this time was “Black Snake Moan,” an over-the-top story (or, as Brewer described it, a “southern fable”) about faith, redemption, love and the blues, which despite propensities for nymphomania and profanity, deftly strikes the correct emotional notes with characters that you can legitimately care about.

Rae (Christina Ricci, “Monster”), is a southern belle gone astray after a troubled childhood. When her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) leaves for the army, yet another piece of her life falls out of place, and she fills this void by having raunchy sex with lots and lots of men-folk.

After a particularly debauched night, Rae is found passed out in a ditch by Lazarus, played by Samuel L. Jackson. Lazarus is a kind man with a worn soul, who clearly seeks to reform his own hard-knock past, and by taking Rae into his home Jackson brings his “good shepherd” persona full circle from “Pulp Fiction” – it’s Ezekiel 25:17 truly personified.

When Rae eventually comes to, she’s impossible to control, so Lazarus does what any God-fearing man might do, and chains her to his radiator. It’s, um, a little weird, but then again, so is the fact that Rae mounts just about anything with a Y-chromosome. You live with it, as Lazarus learns to live with this wild-child, and with a little help from his guitar, slowly comes to terms with his recent divorce and the new child-like figure in his life.

The title refers to the powerful wail of Lazarus’ guitar and his heavy hearted voice, the sound of both recalling the torment of love and loss. It’s powerful stuff. The first time Lazarus plays for Rae, in the midst of a thunderstorm, you understand what “lighting in a bottle” really means.

“Black Snake Moan” is bookended by footage of legendary bluesman Son House, and you can be sure that Brewer’s a disciple. In an interview with The Hatchet, Brewer was able to wax poetic about blues, and the artists who found an outlet in it as he did. “You have bluesmen in the delta … articulating their fears and their lust by repeating it over and over again and singin’ it and yellin’ it and sweatin’ it – there’s something that oddly empowers you, where some of these fears have control over you – and by merely singing about them you gain control again.”

What connects Brewer to his movies and characters, and his movies to each other, is the empowering nature of the music we’re listening to. “Blues and rap are like two clenched fists together . African-American culture has kind of abandoned blues – but I think that’s because they found it in hip-hop and they found it in rap.”

Brewer’s next film ought to be a nice addition to the family. It’s about a tough southern singer who puts the “cunt back in country.” Brewer says it’ll be “just as crunk as ‘Hustle.'” We can only hope.

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