Blues at heart of 'Black Snake Moan'

by Terry Lawson

Detroit Free Press (MCT)

1 March 2007

Director Craig Brewer and Justin Timberlake on the set of Black Snake Moan. 

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. - “Have you ever been publicly called a racist and misogynist?” asks film writer and director Craig Brewer. “It’s hurtful because you think the work speaks for itself. But some people just don’t want to see it.”

Brewer, a white man from Memphis, went through this with his 2005 movie “Hustle & Flow,” starring Terrence Howard as a pimp we root for as he tries to get off the streets and into a rap career. But if that film brought charges of exploitation, they may seem minor compared with what’s coming with his follow-up, “Black Snake Moan,” which opens Friday.

cover art

Black Snake Moan

Director: Brewer, Craig
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci, Justin Timberlake, John Cothran Jr, Michael Raymond-James

(Paramount Vantage)
US theatrical: 2 Mar 2007 (General release)
UK theatrical: 18 May 2007 (General release)

“Black Snake Moan” stars Samuel L. Jackson as an embittered ex-bluesman who finds a busted up, half-naked white girl unconscious near his home in a small, rural Tennessee town.

He takes her home, cleans her up - and chains her to a radiator.

“Black Snake Moan” is, in part, an homage to the Southern exploitation movies of the 1950s and `60s, and that’s played up in the lurid and intentionally provocative advertising. But Brewer says it also is about the same things “Hustle & Flow” and his earlier, little-seen movies have been about, which is the real relationships that develop between whites and blacks in Memphis, and the role music plays in bringing people together.

The genesis of “Black Snake Moan,” says Brewer, a hefty man with a shaved head digging into a hefty man’s meal at Birmingham’s Rugby Grill, was a panic attack.

“I thought I was having a heart attack on an airplane. The stewardess was so cool, she calmed me down. She told me I was probably just having an anxiety attack.

“Anyway, I went to the doctor, and he prescribed some antianxiety meds, and when you first take them, you get a little buzzed, you know. And I had this old blues record playing at the house, like I usually do, and I had this vision, just an image I guess. And it was of this girl in this house attached by this long piece of chain to a radiator. And that was the movie.”

Brewer was already in preproduction on “Black Snake Moan” when “Hustle & Flow” was released in 2005, having become part of the biggest deal ever made at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. The project had been shopped to every major studio in Hollywood. A studio that could have financed the digitally shot film for less than a million dollars outright ended up paying $27 million to acquire the finished product as part of a three-film deal with producer John Singleton.

The film’s star, Terrance Howard, would be nominated for a best actor Oscar. And to the surprise of everyone - except Brewer - the film’s theme song, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp,” won the best song Oscar.

“I had made a bet they would win,” Brewer says of Three 6 Mafia. “When we were trying to sell the film, everyone told us we would have to get somebody better known to do the music. I was like, `No, you don’t get it; this is about Memphis. These guys are Memphis.’”

The success of “Hustle & Flow” would seem to have made it easier to attract the talent he wanted for “Black Snake Moan,” which Brewer conceived as a kind of deep blues parable, about the power of music to heal wounds and repair the damaged spirit.

So Brewer had little problem getting the script to “the only guy I thought has the presence, the authority to truly pull this off,” which was Samuel L. Jackson.

“Thank God Sam got it immediately. He completely understood what I was after. He also loved blues and shared my belief in blues as the real outlaw music. But he had never played guitar. And I thought I really needed that authenticity of seeing someone playing this music they so deeply feel. So did Sam. He learned all the fingering, all the chord positions for every song he plays. The movie is a fable, but for it to work, it has to feel real.”

To Brewer’s surprise, there was no shortage of A-list young actresses who wanted the role of the white junkie that Jackson’s bluesman enslaves until she comes to her senses.

But he says he was not inclined to argue when Christina Ricci showed up dressed in this teeny top and wearing blue-green eye shadow.

“`I’m the girl,’ she said to me,” says Brewer, “and I swear I said to myself, `Yes, she sure is.’ She has to be dirty sexy and wild, an archetype out of some old pulp paperback, but you have to see that vulnerability, too. And man, she’s got it. If this was any other kind of picture - you know, more outwardly respectable - Christina would get an Oscar nomination. She’s that good.”

Also in the cast are Justin Timberlake, as the young solider she cheats on when he reports for duty, and S. Epatha Merkerson as a church-going lady who sees the goodness in Jackson that others don’t.

Brewer says he knows “Black Snake Moan” will be misunderstood, but says his hometown will understand what he’s attempting to do.

“Those people have spent their whole lives dealing with the taboos of race, and finding their ways through them or around them. They’ll get the picture.”

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