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.