Every once in a while, there is a film from which nothing is expected but its ability to kill two hours, yet surprises with a solid plot and decent performances. The other day, that film was Black Snake Moan. There are a few reasons why I hadn’t seen this when it was released in 2007. One was that it only lasted about a month in theaters and by the time I got around to wanting to go, it was gone and so was my desire. Second, it always struck me as a Christina Ricci-driven skin flick, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s still a bit creepy to sit in a dark room filled with people waiting to see nudity; there are plenty of cheaper theaters at the perimeter of Manhattan where one can get those kicks, and they don’t cost thirteen dollars. Finally, the combination of “Snakes” and “Samuel L. Jackson” took me back to 2006 and the nearly residual memories of Snakes on a Plane! (exclamation points optional), a film that could only be a prequel for Opossums in a Post Office! or Deer in a Driveway!
But Black Snake Moan is neither a skin flick – though there is nudity – nor a hyperbolic venture through the weevil-infested Deep South. Instead, it’s an allegory that pits the individualistic against the collective, or rather the value of self against the value of the community. There isn’t a direct clash between the two but an exploration of method when it comes to raising children and defining “discipline.” I’m hesitant to apply racial tension to this allegory – though it’s hard to avoid at times – only because writer / director Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow) doesn’t levy judgment on either race’s ideologies, and he makes this clear through flawed characters on both sides of the color line.
On one side, we have the God-fearing farmer and former blues musician Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), whose wife, Rose (Adriane Lenox) has recently left him for his younger brother Deke (Leonard L. Thomas). On the other, we have Rae (Christina Ricci), the town doorknob whose past is replete with physical and sexual abuse, and whose present is spent searching for acceptance and love in the form of fornication. Both have their demons, but both are also searching for absolution. Lazarus believes he pushed Rose away when he transitioned from popular blues musician to “husband,” failing to provide the excitement and joie de vivre of his younger brother. In contrast, Rae is perpetually pushed away, and to compensate for the loss, she resorts to sex to affirm her value, which is clear from the opening scene that shows Rae in the throes of passion with Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), her boyfriend who is preparing to join the Army. There is a genuine love between the two, but when Ronnie leaves, Rae goes into a fit and becomes possessed by a sexual demon, emphasizing the emptiness she feels in his absence, driving her to find a momentary placebo in the form of the town’s giant black drug dealer before moving on to an alcohol and drug fueled party where she meets up with a football team until she’s severely beaten and left in a ditch where Lazarus finds her.
And here is where the allegory begins. Passed around from person to person, Rae has no one else to turn to, but is unaware that she should be able to turn to someone. The men she finds, she uses as they use her, so the relationship ends with the climax. Her mother is a former addict dealing with her own recovery while working in a grocery store and isolating herself from anything in her past, including Rae, whom she delightfully reminds “I should have gotten that abortion.” Despite the past troubles they share, including the mother’s boyfriend who sexually abused Rae, both have taken an individualistic approach to solving their problems. Instead of commiserating and exchanging past transgressions, they choose to find their own destructive antidotes. Moreover, the mother-daughter relationship here is obviated by this disconnect and speaks to the influence of nurture in upbringing – or lack thereof.
On the other hand, Lazarus is caught between the need to shed his anger and his tie to the adulterer. The confrontation between Rae and her mother leads to a rumble in aisle 5, but when Deke approaches Lazarus at the local bar, the threat of violence stops short of a broken-beer-bottle stabbing, instead transitioning to Biblical salvation when Lazarus yells, “Cain slew Able, slew him out of envy!” Initially, the assumption is that Lazarus becomes Cain and Deke becomes Abel, suggesting that Lazarus envies Deke’s ability to provide Rose what he could not. Ostensibly, this would categorize him as an individualistic character; however, Lazarus shifts to a collectivist mentality when he states, “God put his mark on Cain for his sins, is that what you want Deke? Huh? Is that what you come here for? I’ll do it for you, all you got to do is say it again… Say you love me.” Here, Lazarus embraces fraternity and assumes the role of the forgiving and compassionate. When compared to Rae, Lazarus represents the ability to move past the “self” and focuses on the interaction with the “other,” something that Rae is unable to do in her relationships and her past.
Bottling up anger until it explodes may not be the best method, but the convergence of Rae and Lazarus alleviates this pressure. At first, the relationship is a bit strained to say the least. He finds her, offers her cough syrup, gives her a cold bath to break her fever, and ties her to his radiator with a fifty-pound chain. The chain has compelled a number of critics to write Black Snake Moan off as a misogynist fantasy, but the theme goes beyond the visually obvious. The chain is not solely about self-aggrandizing power and control (though it’s therapeutic for Lazarus to help someone else and prove his value). Rather, the chain provides parental control over Rae, someone whose leash has never been tethered. It’s disciplining but not punitive. He feeds her and clothes her in summer dresses as opposed to underwear and a ripped t-shirt. He doesn’t abuse her either. There are no physical or sexual advantages taken because of the train.
The end result, strangely enough, is a lesson in family and what it means to support one another in a time of need. Perhaps something else to be taken here is that the definition of “family” has changed and what looks to be punitive and restrictive is actually what’s needed in an, at times, laissez faire culture – maybe not to the extent of literal chains, but, after all, it is an allegory.