Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci and Blues Music
Starring Samuel L. Jackson and Christina Ricci, Black Snake Moan (2006) was written and directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow). Black Snake Moan is a blues film that takes its title from a traditional song by Blind Lemon Jefferson. At the movie's emotional high point, Jackson performs that song during a thunderstorm.
The acting in Black Snake Moan is impressive with Jackson and Ricci being strong in the lead roles and Justin Timberlake and S. Epatha Merkerson giving good supporting performances. The location shooting in rural Tennessee provides the appropriate atmosphere for the outlandish story. But what makes the film special is that it's organized around the blues, such as when Jackson does "Just Like a Bird Without a Feather," "Alice Mae" and "Stackolee."
The characters in Black Snake Moan are stereotypes, and the story is pulpy. For many viewers, the movie's most enduring image is that of a nubile, scantily clad white woman (Ricci) who has been chained to a radiator by an older black man (Jackson). But this takes place in the context of a stylized fable with lots of dialogue where characters talk about their feelings. Like blues music, this movie is about people battling their demons.
The Needy White Girl-Woman and the Melancholy Old Black Man
In the film, Rae (Christina Ricci) is a troubled young white woman who lives in a trailer with her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). He suffers from severe anxiety attacks, and she has a strange psychological disorder that manifests itself as nymphomania whenever she and Ronnie are separated for an extended period of time. When Ronnie ships out with his National Guard unit, Rae goes into emotional free fall. She ends up in a situation where she gets badly beaten and dumped on a country road.
That's where she is found by Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), an old African-American farmer who's in a funk because his wife has just run off with his brother. Laz takes it upon himself to treat both Rae's physical wounds and her psychological problems, and this turns out to be good for both of them. One of the film's themes is the healing power of music, and the blues play an important part in exorcising Laz's and Rae's demons, allowing them to at least temporarily achieve emotional stability.
A key supporting role in the movie is that of the preacher, well played by John Cothran Jr. He shows how religion, the Bible and the church can be a force for good in peoples' lives.
Making-Of Documentary and Featurette on the Music
The Black Snake Moan DVD contains a 28-minute making-of documentary that is worth watching. Cast and crew talk about the film, and we are told that Samuel L. Jackson learned to play guitar for the movie, while Christina Ricci got to choose her own chain. Writer-director Craig Brewer reveals that a major influence on him was the 1991 documentary Deep Blues, and he says, "When you're dealing with blues music, you're dealing with sex and the devil and heaven and God."
Also on the DVD is a 12-minute featurette titled "Rooted in the Blues" that's about the film's music and musicians, who are nearly all from the Memphis area. Brewer wears a ballcap bearing the words "North Mississippi Allstars," and he invokes the names of the most famous musicians who used to record in Memphis, Elvis Presley and Rufus Thomas. Scott Bomar, who wrote the score for Black Snake Moan, says he was influenced by the scores for Baby Doll (1956) and Ennio Morricone westerns. But the biggest influence on the film came from celebrated bluesman R.L. Burnside, who passed away in 2005.
Anatomy of a Key Scene and Deleted Scenes
The movie's pivotal scene is where Samuel L. Jackson performs the title song. While an electrical storm rages, Laz sings the song to Rae, who flashes back on being abused. This crucial scene was complicated to shoot and edit, and the DVD has a nine-minute featurette on how it was done titled "The Black Snake Moan." The featurette shows the importance that Brewer attaches to creating atmosphere and mood.
The DVD also contains five deleted scenes with a total running time of about 12 minutes. They can be watched with or without Brewer's audio commentary. The most interesting of these is "Laz Breaks Rae's Fever," in which Laz reads to Rae from Matthew 17 about Jesus curing a lunatic.
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