For the Aussie release of “Black Snake Moan”
Writer-director Craig Brewer’s first feature, ‘’Hustle & Flow’’, focused on an unconventional family dynamic that developed around small-town hustler and pimp DJay (played by the incomparable Terrence Howard) and his dream of a hip-hop career. And while at first glance the film may have seemed like a look at crunk culture and the pimping game, a closer look revealed that ‘’Hustle & Flow’’ had deeper concerns, such as the redemptive power of music and the need for everyone to accept the assistance and guidance of other people every once in a while. These are themes that crop up again in Brewer’s follow-up film, ‘’Black Snake Moan’’. But you could easily be misled by a look at the poster, which features sweet young Christina Ricci bound up in a chain held by a glowering Samuel L. Jackson. Says Brewer, “I tell people, ‘It’s a strange father-daughter story but it is a father-daughter story’. With ‘Hustle & Flow, there were eyebrows raised – was I supporting or glamorising this lifestyle? I wasn’t diving into that part so much; there’s more of a family dynamic going on, and that happens with ‘Black Snake Moan’ as well. ”
Brewer was well aware that his story about Lazarus (Jackson), a blues musician who resolves to cure local nymphomaniac Rae (Ricci) of her so-called wicked ways by chaining her to his radiator could initially be open to misinterpretation. “I thought about it for a long time, because the same thing happened with ‘Hustle & Flow’. Talk to a lot of people who’ve seen that film and they’re almost euphoric with this feeling that they’ve discovered it. ‘We rented it the other night and it was so much more accessible than we thought it would be. We thought it would be about hardcore gangsta rap and pimping women. We didn’t know we’d actually care about the people’,” he says.
“I thought about the same thing with Black Snake Moan because it is a movie about a black man chaining a white girl to his radiator. Hmmm, some people might have a problem with that! But he’s very protective of her, and it’s something you can actually even see in the poster even – that protective stance he’s taking. He’s chained her up for a reason, as crazy as that may sound! And it fits appropriately with the music I love, that northern Mississippi blues music, that gut-level blues. That kind of music has songs about having misery and pain in their heart that makes them scream at the moon. I wanted to make a movie that embraced that world.”
Prior to the acclaim that accompanied the release of ‘’Hustle & Flow’’, Brewer was convinced that he’d have to shoot ‘’Black Snake Moan’’ on a micro-budget. “I really thought I was going to be shooting this with a video camera, getting an actual blues musician and finding some girl to play Rae,” he says. “Then Hustle & Flow happened and I got the opportunity to cast actual actors – the kind you have to pay for. When Sam read the script, he really responded to it. I met him and found out he was from Tennessee and that he had a real love of the blues. Then I found out he’d actually got a guitar – they give presenters at the Oscars this gift package and one of the gifts was a guitar.” Jackson’s role as Lazarus not only sees him singing and playing guitar, it also has him using the 12-letter profanity that’s kind of the actor’s trademark. “However many millions of dollars he’s paid, he’s worth it for ‘motherfucker’,” laughs Brewer. “It’s like a special effect when he says it.”
As far as the provocative role of Rae goes, Ricci was quick to put her mark on it. “We actually had auditions for Rae because we knew we had to see the character in front of us rather than just offering the role,” says Brewer. “She was the first person to audition and she knocked us all on our ass – the role really belonged to her. There’s a bait-and-switch I like to do in movies. An example of that in Hustle & Flow is this moment when DJay brings Nola, the white hooker, along to a pawn shop to get a microphone. And he basically say to her that she has to service this guy in order for him to get this microphone. Before that happens, there’s this big blow-up between the two of them, and she’s really rebelling against him, she’s crying. And she’s calling us, the audience, out for the way we may have felt about her before. With Christina’s character, we’ve watched Christina grow up on film so we are protective of her. But she’s this striking, gorgeous young woman, so we would want to titillate the audience and it puts them in this uncomfortable place. Christina was very aware of the character’s appeal – she wanted Rae to be like a thunderstorm, something you couldn’t take your eyes off. The role would have fallen apart if she hadn’t been able to show that Rae was really damaged and that she needed someone, anyone, to help her, to listen to her, to care for her and not want anything in return.”
Even in interviews, Brewer comes across an evocative storyteller, sharing anecdotes about the blues musicians who helped inspire ‘’Black Snake Moan’’- the title is taken from a song by bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson – and displaying an encyclopaedic knowledge of the genre’s history. (His love of music is evident by his next two projects: an “outlaw country music movie” titled ‘’Maggie Lynn’’ and a biopic of African-American country & western star Charley Pride that would reunite Brewer and ‘’Hustle & Flow’’ star Howard.) Brewer is also keen to convey that his latest movie should be viewed a piece of art with a heightened take on reality. “I’m not saying that this is a realistic portrayal of people in the south,” he laughs. “Look at the clothes Rae is wearing, look at the size of the chain. I was inspired by the writings of Tennessee Williams and the short stories of Flannery O’Connor. But the chain and the radiator do mean something – when I’ve kind of lost my mind, I’ve wanted something very solid and immovable in my life to yank me back, to snap some sense into me.”
For Brewer, his home town of Memphis, Tennessee acts as that “solid and immovable” force, and the themes that have recurred in his two films so far pay tribute to that. “There is something special in the soil in Memphis, Tennessee, something that’s always been there,” he says. “My family always moved around a lot but we were always anchored in Memphis, Tennessee – we were always meaning to go back there. And I was feeling kind of lost in my young adult life but when I moved back to Memphis, all my passions and obsessions came into focus and I started making films there. I did that with a community of musicians, hustlers, drug dealers, strippers, pimps, car thieves – they all wanted to help me make my first movie. And I couldn’t put myself in a position to judge. I didn’t know them on a criminal or immoral level, I just knew them as people. We have people in our families that we can’t help but love, even if they do bad things sometimes. I felt very embraced by this community, and I put that in my films. So I am very aware of those things because I feel that I have personally benefited from those particular qualities in people and communities. Hustle & Flow is about me making that first film – I was trying to shoot it on a video camera, my wife and I had nothing but we were trying to make something out of it. The best things to come out of Memphis make something out of nothing.”
Black Snake Moan opens in cinemas this Thursday.
- GUY DAVIS