Film: Southern Blues

Craig Brewer discusses his latest impassioned, music-laden movie, 'Black Snake Moan'

Feb 28, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

Christina Ricci scratches an itch in Black Snake Moan.

Black Snake Moan is something to behold. Teetering on the edge of complete outrageousness but never less than sincere, this far-out fable centers on Rae (Christina Ricci), a white-trash skank with an insatiable sexual itch whose anxiety kicks into high gear when her boyfriend Ronnie (Justin Timberlake) leaves for boot camp.

Completely lost without her guy, Rae finds solace in copious amounts of drink, drugs and sex. She wanders around her rural Tennessee town in a perpetual haze, her rail-thin body used up and discarded like a dirty dishrag. (This hallowed-out Ricci is a far cry from the plump, innocent-eyed girl of Vincent Gallo's Buffalo 66.) Rae's a bottomless well, a black hole of a girl marked by a shitty childhood and dirty, bleach-blonde hair.

Enter Lazarus (Samuel L. Jackson), a backwoods bluesman who finds a beaten Rae passed out on the side of the road, clad in only a skimpy pair of white cotton panties and a soiled cutoff Confederate T-shirt. Recently abandoned himself — his wife left him for his brother — Lazarus is determined to "cure" Rae of her wild, sinful ways. How? By chaining her to his radiator.

Writer/director Craig Brewer's wacked follow-up to the entertaining if over-praised Hustle & Flow comes off like a '70s exploitation flick populated by established leads, both of whom give their all (especially the fearless Ricci) to this unabashedly trashy yet strangely tender exploration of religious salvation and the redemptive powers of Blues music.

CityBeat recently spoke to Brewer, whose down-home, Memphis-bred enthusiasm radiates through the phone line with as much passion as the characters he so lovingly creates.

CityBeat: Tell me about the nexus of Black Snake Moan.

Craig Brewer: It really came out of anxiety. I was having anxiety attacks at the time that came about when I was trying to get Hustle & Flow made and everyone was passing on it. When I started listening to Blues one night it just reminded me — or I just sort of had a revelation — about Blues. It's an exorcism. It's music where you articulate the fear in your heart and in your gut. Not in your mind, not where you can think about something, but really where you feel you have to articulate it and you have to sing it really loud and you have to put a beat to it. And then it's like you get control over it. It's like you're riding the bull instead of being thrown from it and being trampled. And that's when I saw a vision. That vision was of a chain yanking against a radiator, and the radiator clanking and it sounding like a church bell.

CB: Were you worried that the film's more outrageous elements would alienate some of the audience?

Brewer: That worry was there from the moment I wrote "Fade in." You're either going to take a ride of a nymphomaniac on the end of a chain of an old black man or you're not.

This movie is supposed to be taken from a gut level, not a mind level. I got criticized for people laughing at the whores in Hustle & Flow. And now they're like, "Well, don't you think that if you're going to have a movie where a black man chains up a white woman that you need to explore the complexities of race and gender?" Uh, hell no! Man, us in the South, we're not worried about any of that. We're not thinking about that, we're not preoccupied with that.

CB: I kept thinking about some of Tennessee Williams' melodramas...

Brewer: I always remind people to go back and look at that scene of Stanley Kowalski playing poker in Streetcar Named Desire, and throwing that radio outside and punching his pregnant wife and then people throwing him into the shower and ripping his shirt. They just happened to rip his shirt, right? They just happened to choose to get him wet to sober him up, right? So when he goes outside and he's screaming upstairs for Stella he looks like a chiseled stone god. So in this moment of horror and craziness, Stella goes downstairs and screws him, and we kinda want to, too, 'cause he looks so damn good. Tennessee Williams understands that nod to camp and melodrama, and we just don't have that much in cinema anymore. Some people may go, "Oh, the movie's over the top." Yeah, but we've been deadened a little bit over the last couple of years. We haven't had too many movies that have been over the top. If anything, we need more.

CB: Christina (Ricci) completely transforms herself here. Was that something you asked her to do?

Brewer: I told her I thought the character never ate three squares a day, that she was raised on sugar cereal and chips. She knew that we needed to create this white redneck fantasy, this trailer-park tramp. We are using archetypes; we're using those clichés and stereotypes. That's our palette. So not only did she sculpt her body but she even picked out the big, old heavy chain, she picked out the lock, she picked out the white cotton panties. I designed the T-shirt. I told my buddy exactly what I wanted: "I want the shirt cut off the shoulder like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance and (cut off) across the chest so I can see her stomach." I was worried when she put on the shirt that she wouldn't like it. But she was like, "Oh, yeah, this is gonna be great!"

CB: How did you come to Justin (Timberlake) for the role of Ronnie?

Brewer: He knew who Ronnie was. We are both from the same city and we both come from families with a lot of Southern men. We know people who have been pushed into aggressive masculine roles and they're just not equipped for that kind of violence, and it begins to dig a hole in him.

I remember seeing him in interviews before I started Hustle & Flow, and I thought, "This is a guy I'm supposed to work with." Because he's obviously great at music, but he's going to get criticized for the same thing I'm going to get criticized about. It's like, "Why is this white boy messin' around with black music or a movie with a black cast." But you gotta kind of understand where we come from, you really need to understand Memphis to understand that we're trying to be mavericks in that Memphis spirit. And that's not stealing anything; it's bringing our love of music and culture together and shining a big spotlight on it.

CB: Southern culture plays a huge role in your movies. Its presence permeates nearly every frame. Why are you so interested in mining the South?

Brewer: It's not only crucial; it's the thing that excites me. I can't get enough of Southern culture. I love reading about mythologies and legends and histories. I could talk your ear off all day about the Mississippi Delta and Memphis. I feel we need more Southern filmmakers, or we need more films from this region. We can spoof ourselves: It's our dog; we can kick it. I want to be an advocate for regional filmmaking, and the best way I can do that is to stay at home and keep making movies about the South.

CB: Despite the crazy, sometimes campy nature of the story and characters, I never got a sense that you were anything but sincere about them...

Brewer: Oh, yeah. I personally believe in these characters. I love them. I want to treat them with respect. I know this may sound strange, but I don't want to offend people with Black Snake Moan. I want to take them on a ride, but I really do have a message that I believe. I love the humanity in these characters. I love that fact that nobody would love this little girl and that Sam's character has decided to love her unconditionally because he, too, is hurting. I believe in that. I have practiced that in my life and I'm better because of it and I'm more successful because of it. ©