There's nothing a good rehab program can't cure. Mel Gibson promptly checked himself into the nearest treatment center for his racism; San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom for adultery; and, most recently, Britney Spears for her peculiar aversion to underwear.
So what could be more timely than director Craig Brewer's latest flick, Black Snake Moan, which offers up another such redemption narrative, albeit with a Southern twist: Good-hearted black backwoodsman Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson) cures white-trash "nymphomaniac" Rae (Christina Ricci) of her sex-addiction in small-town Tennessee. Except where Britney is busy atoning for her untrammeled sexual behavior in upscale Malibu, Rae isn't quite as lucky. In this mythical South there is only one surefire cure for a white girl gone wild: chaining her to a radiator in her panties and letting the camera linger salaciously on every inch as she writhes and moans in sexual heat.
The movie's misogyny is hardly surprising from a director known for promoting the dubious proposition, in Hustle & Flow, that "it's hard out here for a pimp." But what passed for mere indifference to women in that movie is revealed to be an unmistakable lack of compassion in Black Snake Moan. Rae is a victim of childhood abuse who channels her pain through a raging appetite for sex with strangers, which finally gets her beaten, raped and left for dead on the side of the road. In Brewer's world, however, it is Rae who needs to be "cured" and not the men who heedlessly use her for sex, with or without her consent. So along comes Lazarus to help her "collar that dawg," which is her libido.
The icing on this particular cake is a PR campaign featuring a barely clad Ricci wrapped in an enormous chain or, alternatively, kneeling at Samuel Jackson's feet, accompanied by the soft-porn slogan "Everything Is Hotter Down South."
Despite the button-pushing imagery, Brewer seems either disingenuous or in denial about his choices as a filmmaker. "I'm exploring something that has nothing to do with race or gender," he says in a Salon interview, claiming, "You can't do a movie about the blues and not explore biblical imagery and Southern iconography." But in the same breath he complains, "Can we not think metaphorically once race and gender are introduced?" Yet he never says exactly what he is exploring with the panties/chains/flag metaphor, if not race or gender.
The two most powerful symbols of slavery in Black Snake Moan are writ large on Rae's body: the chains around her waist and the rebel flag on her T-shirt. These images evoke the specter of white wrongdoing but also reframe her enslavement--which is supposed to be OK because Lazarus is black and Rae is white, and we all know what that means in the South. What makes the movie truly offensive is that it employs race to peddle its brand of misogyny.
By not exploring--but exploiting--race and gender, Brewer's camera leaves the viewer free to savor the bared body of a victim of sexual abuse and rape tied to a radiator. And savor the male critics did. "All this envelope-pushing misogyny goes down relatively easily," claims New York Post's Lou Lumenick, who could "practically smell the sex and sweat" in what he dubs a "not insignificant contribution to global warming." Todd McCarthy of Variety predicts that the movie "will find its most eager audience among college-age guys hot to ogle the young star in some very raw action." Needless to say, none of those straight college boys would be as enthusiastic if Rae were a white man, say, a near-naked Jake Gyllenhaal. The most memorable time a woman imprisoned a man against his will on the silver screen, it was an aptly titled horror flick called Misery.
Brewer likes to compare himself to the great iconoclastic moviemakers of the past, especially when defending himself against charges of sexism. "If you just kind of updated [A Streetcar Named Desire] a little bit--I think people would just cry unbelievable misogyny and sexism about that movie," he tells Salon. In other words, attention to feminist carping would stifle the genius of a present-day Elia Kazan, a k a Craig Brewer.
The claim that art should be above the pedestrian concerns of gender politics has more than its share of supporters. "The intrinsic offensiveness of Black Snake Moan is so overt...that railing against it is tiresome before you even get started. It's more interesting to focus on the aspects of the film that do mark a valid young talent," writes one female critic. A reader responding to a review in Slate grumbles, "I haven't seen 'Black Snake Moan' and I don't know if I'll like it or not. But that decision won't be shaped at all by some prissy concern [about] the moral rectitude of the main character's actions."
It's absurd to pretend that movies are exempt from public standards of morality. Hollywood movies, especially the kind funded by big studios, are careful to remain within the bounds of cultural acceptability. It's the reason no leading man, however flawed, would punch his pregnant wife à la Streetcar today. And there would be no Black Snake Moan if Ricci were black or Jackson were not. Much of the grossly sexist, racist and homophobic imagery that can be shrugged aside in a classic flick as a "sign of the times" would be unpalatable in a movie made today. And that's a good thing. Would a white guy like Brewer be as eager to make an updated Gone With the Wind or Birth of a Nation?
But if movies do indeed reflect our shared consensus about right and wrong, then Black Snake Moan speaks volumes about twenty-first-century America, where tying a woman to a radiator to cure her of "nymphomania" is deemed merely provocative, controversial or, at worst, tasteless. The problem isn't that we are more sexist than racist as a society. It's that race and gender are far too often pitted against each other, and one can be used to justify sins against the other. We can bomb entire countries in the name of rescuing women from Islam. So it is that Brewer uses our racist past to offer us a nice excuse to overlook--nay, relish--his blatant misogyny. And that ought to be reason enough to send the entire nation to rehab.