Maggie McMuffin heads to the Deep South with Craig Brewer’s second film BLACK SNAKE MOAN.
“All I remember about Black Snake Moan is that I was 15 and Christina Ricci was playing a nymphomaniac and I watched based entirely off that.”
This is one of those things that really should have made me realize I was gay much, much sooner.
Anyway. Christina Ricci playing a nymphomaniac is still on my list of ‘yes please’s but now I have a better understanding of racial dynamics so this is probably gonna be less baby gay fodder and more…I dunno. Aside from a big-ass chain and Justin Timberlake being okay I’ve really got nothing else to say about this before we dive back in, so let’s go down south!
The film opens with an old blues man talking about love and deception. THE BLUES. And we cut to Rae (Christina Ricci) and Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) fucking like there’s no tomorrow while a fantastic song plays (note: this soundtrack is rad). Despite this very visceral opening image, the rest of the movie is surprisingly sweet and, while I’m not a theology or English major, the word that came to mind is ‘parable.’ Maybe it’s all the religious spots in the movie or maybe it’s because this is a story about people learning to help themselves by helping other people.
Rae and Lazarus’ (Samuel L. Jackson) stories are based in archetypes. Rae is the town slut in a small southern town while Laz is a brilliant farmer and recent divorcée whose younger wife ran off with his brother. These are characters who could easily fall prey to exploitation film stereotypes, and while they don’t necessarily get a ton of depth they are treated with sympathy. Laz’s story is not expressly about race. His being black is merely a part of his character because, newsflash, black men can’t just stop being black men. Especially in the super-racist South. And Rae, while a nympho due to childhood sexual abuse, is not presented as either pure victim or irredeemable harlot. When she has her ‘fits,’ the camera is not lurid at all but instead shoots her body up close and piece by piece, illustrating instead Rae’s own discomfort in her body rather than catering to the male gaze that she lives under in her daily life.
Indeed, there is an intersection of racism and sexuality here. Rae does cheat on Ronnie pretty much as soon as he ships out for the National Guard. She sleeps with a black man named Tehronne who is said to think of himself as a grade-A thug. Indeed, he does have two women he employs, but he mentions one being on vacation and another taking time off, which would indicate he’s far more of a security figure than an abusive pimp. The only drug he deals is pot. Tehronne, while seen as the cuckolding stereotype by other white men in the film, is only guilty of sleeping with a woman with a boyfriend. In fact, when Laz thinks he’s responsible for Rae being beat up, Tehronne immediately gets defensive and says that Rae may be a fucked up woman, but if anyone fucks with her they’re also gonna fuck with him.
However, it is Rae’s sleeping with Tehronne that results in her being beat up. Ronnie’s best friend Gil, who criticizes them being together, decides during a ride home from a party, where Rae is incredibly fucked up and has already slept with another man, that he wants to break off a piece. He thinks Rae is an easy target, but despite being a slave to compulsive behavior and high out of her mind, Rae says no. She makes this clear, and when he rags on her for having slept with a black man, she laughs in his face and says, “You ain’t got half of what Tehronne got.” This is what causes Gil to switch from rape to a beat down, and he punches Rae in the face until she passes out, then tosses her out of his truck onto the side of the road.
Rae, throughout the film, doesn’t let people see how much she hates her compulsive need for sex and her lack of control over it. She makes quips about it, she flips people off, and she wears her metaphorical scarlet letter with pride. Fuck everyone, both literally and figuratively. Her not playing a victim or someone filled with shame is a bigger perceived crime, especially since her sluttiness also represents miscegenation. Rae’s pussy is hers and is also the great equalizer of a fairly segregated crowd. And the white men adhering to a good ol’ boy sense of masculinity will not stand for that.
It’s the other black men in the film who prescribe to less toxic ideas of what a man should be. Laz, while prone to yelling about his ex-wife, is not physically violent save for pulling a broken bottle on his brother. His good friend and preacher RL is called in multiple times to sit with people and talk to them. Indeed, at one point Laz tried threatening RL with a gun to make him leave, and RL calls his bluff. This is echoed later when Ronnie, having been kicked out of the Guard for severe anxiety, comes home to hear Rae slept with Gil—this is a lie Gil said and is not resolved save for Ronnie beating the shit out of him—goes off to find her, and winds up trying to kill Laz. Laz talks him down, asking him what kind of man he is and if killing someone will prove anything about that. After talking him down, RL comes over and we immediately segue to a makeshift couples counseling session where Rae and Ronnie are shown openly discussing their feelings for the first time in the movie. Ronnie owns up to his anxiety and how he can’t be around loud noises without feeling helpless. Rae talks about intrusive thoughts based on her abuse and takes responsibility for her actions.
“I think we’re fucked up. Both of us. I know I am. But that don’t mean what I feel isn’t real. That I can’t love somebody.”
They consider if they are broken but RL smiles and asks them what they’re going to do about it. And the resolution is to help one another and learn to be stronger together. Also to get the fuck out of their small town and go after the dreams they want for themselves, rather than the ones they’ve been assigned by their community.
You may have noticed that I mostly talked about Rae and that’s not a mistake. Laz’s story is more covert and comes out through helping Rae. We see him make a connection with another woman in town, Miss Angie, who is very sweet and works at a pharmacy. They hold hands at the end after marrying off Ronnie and Rae. Laz goes back to his music, channeling any negative feelings into art. He does not reconcile with his brother or his ex-wife, but this film takes place over like a week? And he’s shown dealing with everything at least. And he at least gets enough of his own thing going on to not be relegated to the role of a magical black man who comes in and fixes the white folks. He’s simply the second (counting Ronnie) to treat Rae as a human being and not walking sex. He gets kind of sermon-y at her at times and he does chain her to a radiator and talk to her about being a lady, but what he stresses to her is that she can do things. When he makes dinner (and oh my god what a dinner it is I want to eat at his house so badly) and asks her to help, he offers support and insists she must at least know how to boil water.
(Note as someone who can fuck up pasta, this scene plus the following one where it is revealed that Rae cooked the eggs really touched me.)
Early on, Laz tells Rae that he ‘tried’ to take care of his ex-wife the way he’s taking care of Rae. As we know that didn’t work out, we know she felt stifled and like she wasn’t living her life when she was in his house, it does give us a good launching off point for Laz’s growth. While he starts out treating Rae with a hard hand and doing what he wants, he soon realizes that helping her means supporting her. It means believing in her, listening to her feelings, having a nice little jam session. It can also mean doing the hard work of carrying her out of a grocery store after she confronts her mom about an old boyfriend abusing her as a child and reacting to an honest attempt to reconcile and forgive by saying she wished she’d had an abortion.
And that moment is a turning point. Laz swoops in and takes Rae out. He doesn’t feel shame for associating with her. He doesn’t make the situation about him. And Rae breaks down crying and screaming, lashing out in a way that is all pain. She doesn’t try to have sex with anyone or masturbate; she cries, and when Laz cradles her she clings to him in a wholly platonic way. It’s a hard-earned connection, but it’s balanced and mutual.
Even the chain, which was previously a symbol of Rae needing to get in line, becomes something Laz puts on her in place of a wedding ring that she uses to remind herself of where and who she is. It’s an anchor rather than a leash, and her connection with it allows her to move past her final attack in order to help Ronnie, who is only just beginning to deal with his shit.
This is not a movie that merits a play-by-play or deep conversation. It’s a nice movie about black and white people that isn’t expressly about race but acknowledges it in a way that we’re all trying to do more these days. It’s genuinely about people just trying to do their best for themselves and each other, taking shelter from the storm by singing the blues and sitting down for biscuits.
— I distinctly remember thinking, “Oh, Timberlake is trying to act now” when this movie came out, but now whenever he releases a song, I’m like, “Oh yeah, he used to do music.” I am glad we gave him the chance to do what he’s better at even if it started with him doing dramas.
— Christina Ricci is so small in this and she’s, like, all eyes. Also, I think I imprinted on her party outfit more than I thought I did because I dress like that in the summer.
— There is a scene where Rae is having a fit and a teen whose age we are never really told comes by the house. She has sex with him after trying hard not to. The movie doesn’t really go into this and it is something that makes me uncomfortable and something where race really does play a factor in making it more uncomfortable. Also, the kid, Lincoln, looked grown up to me ten years ago but, much like when I see 22-year-olds at parties, I shouted “THAT IS A CHILD” at my screen.
— Samuel L. Jackson is really good at doing blues music and we should put him in more things where he sings and plays guitar.
— This movie is a bit confusing on where it stands about sluttiness. Like, it comes around to treating Rae okay, but it does shame several other women. But it’s fine with other women who never get lines.
— Seriously. This soundtrack. Give it a listen.