In his passionate and rapturously entertaining 1995 book "It Came From Memphis," Robert Gordon explains how, in the summer of 1966, the Ku Klux Klan held a rally at the city's Overton Park Band Shell, attracting an audience of about 400. Just a week later, more than twice as many people showed up for the first Memphis Country Blues Festival, an event organized by a bunch of, in Gordon's words, "beatnik blues fans," and one in which black and white performers shared the stage. Among the former were blues artists like Bukka White and Furry Lewis, two gentlemen who, in 1966, were already approaching senior citizen status. "The corporeal spirituality of the blues musicians was as gripping as their music," Gordon writes of the event. "What they played was unencumbered by progress, as relevant in 1966 as in 1926. They cut through the urban soundtrack, transporting listeners back in time with them. At their feet, confronted by them, one could not help but be moved. They physically embodied the music: leathery and worn, dusty, dry. The repetition in what they played, the hypnotism, was the sonic equivalent of a plowed field, row upon row."
Writing about a specific event and specific performers, Gordon captures some of the elusive, mystical qualities of the blues in general, particularly with that seemingly contradictory phrase "corporeal spirituality." Can the blues save us, or is it the tool of the devil? Are our bodies, with all their built-in wants and needs, a gift or a burden? The only way to answer those questions is with more questions, and more music, which is the approach Memphis-based filmmaker Craig Brewer takes in "Black Snake Moan," a wild and sweet little picture about sex, redemption and music, though perhaps not necessarily in that order.
In "Black Snake Moan" -- which Brewer also wrote -- Samuel L. Jackson plays Lazarus, a juke-joint bluesman who's given up music for farming. He's bitter, disillusioned and more than a little screwed up: His wife has just left him for his brother, and although he's a God-fearing man, tight with his local preacher (played by John Cothran), he talks some crazy talk about taking vengeance on the ex. He's distracted, though, when he discovers a young woman, who's been beaten into unconsciousness, lying by the side of the road near his property. He carries her to his home, a haven of weathered floorboards and sagging sofas, and administers medicine he's charmed out of the local pharmacist, Angela (S. Epatha Merkerson).
Lazarus learns that the young woman's name is Rae -- she's played by Christina Ricci -- and that her problems run so deep they can't be cured with drugstore medicine. Rae is the town's bad girl, a young woman who was neglected by her mother and abused by men all her life, and who sleeps around compulsively as a way of staving off fear and loneliness. She has a steady boyfriend, Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), who has helped keep her grounded. But he's just headed off to boot camp, and Rae is so distraught, she lapses into her old habits. She doesn't even have to go out looking for trouble; it finds her. A pal of Ronnie's, who's supposed to be looking after her, rapes her and beats her, leaving her for dead, which is where Lazarus steps in. But as Rae recuperates on his couch -- dressed in the clothes she was wearing when he found her, a pair of cut-off shorts and an abbreviated T-shirt adorned with crossed Confederate and American flags -- Lazarus comes to realize that she has the "sickness." She's writhing, burning with fever: In her delirium, she dashes out of the cabin, ready to do herself harm. So he chains her to his radiator to rid her of the demons that control her.
That's the gimmick of "Black Snake Moan," a gimmick that leads us, like a trail of manna bread crumbs, to the movie's soul. Brewer is a provocateur, a troublemaker, and the first act of "Black Snake Moan" is clearly designed to throw us off our game, to make us wonder where in tarnation this aggressively outlandish picture is going. The poster for "Black Snake Moan," designed to look like a comic-book cover, shows the muscular Lazarus looming, in a stance that could be either protective or threatening, over the saucy Rae in her rebel dishabille: He grips the sturdy iron chain that encircles her waist. The image meets at the crossroads of biblical symbolism and exploitation cinema, with a little Frank Frazetta thrown in.
I wouldn't call the "Black Snake Moan" campaign false advertising. But I would call it a mischievous bait-and-switch. "Black Snake Moan" is ultimately about damaged people helping one another to become their best selves, but come on: What person with a grain of sense would see a movie with that on its poster? The picture is very obviously crafted as a fable. Its characters are stereotypes at the beginning, but our focus sharpens as we watch them: They sneak out of the roles we've assigned to them and become people instead.
I think, with "Black Snake Moan," Brewer's secret is finally out of the bag: For all that he wants to rattle and disarm us, he's really a humanist in wolf's clothing. His 2005 "Hustle & Flow" gave us Terrence Howard as the pimp DJay, the kind of guy who throws one of his hookers out on the street because she's become a nuisance to him -- and also boots the woman's infant son out with her, plopping the child's walker on the stoop before slamming the door.
The moment is horrifying, but it's also a challenge: Can we -- or should we -- feel any sympathy for this guy? What does it say about us if we do? I remember reading my colleagues' reviews of "Hustle & Flow," after I'd written my own, and being baffled by many of them. Some had decided the picture was misogynist because it asks us to feel something for a guy who exploits women, as if compassion were the same thing as approval, a response I could understand on some level even if I didn't share it. But I was more puzzled by the critics -- most of them men -- who seemed to be airing their thinly disguised fears that DJay was going to move into their comfortable neighborhoods and prey on their daughters. They seemed more deeply invested in protecting the notion of the "threatening black male" than in even daring to look under its hood.
Brewer, and Howard, took a risk in asking us to connect with a guy we couldn't respect, trust or even really like. "Black Snake Moan," its potent imagery notwithstanding, is in some ways a much less sensationalistic picture. In both movies, Brewer shows a gift for building mood and atmosphere: "Hustle & Flow" -- set, and filmed, in Memphis -- is a summer-in-the-city movie in which the heat hangs so heavily in the air you can practically see it. "Black Snake Moan" takes place in the country, a world of bean fields and dirt roads and little towns where you can stop in and buy whatever you might need -- a bucket or a shovel, a new dress or a shirt that's nicer than your everyday clothes, a cup of coffee if you're looking for a pick-me-up. Beautifully shot by Amelia Vincent (who was also the director of photography on "Hustle & Flow," as well as "Eve's Bayou" and "The Caveman's Valentine"), the picture has the soft glow of a Sunday-school picture book.
Which is not to say it doesn't have its moments of horror, as well as some touches of sick humor. When we first see Ricci chained to that radiator -- and catch a glimpse of the zealous, though in no way sexual, gleam in Jackson's eyes -- we're getting bits of Southern biblical obsessiveness mingled with gothic horror. Rae also has a bodaciously foul mouth: "Kiss my rebel cooch!" she growls at a guy who's bugging her.
But Rae's vulnerability is never in question: Her near-nekkidness is obviously an exploitation turn-on, but it also makes you want to wrap a blanket around her (which is exactly what Lazarus promptly does). It's difficult to look at Ricci, in her early scenes, because Rae's face is so badly bruised. But if the makeup were less realistic, the seriousness of Rae's plight wouldn't hit so hard. Sure, Lazarus is patronizing her, but it's also clear she might have died without him. Since she's incapable of steering on her own, it's his job to take the wheel for a spell.
Brewer takes pleasure -- sometimes it's impish pleasure -- in giving us gorgeous images that are also slightly jarring, like the sight of Lazarus showing the chained-up Rae (this is a pretty long chain) around his bean field, proud of the work he's put into it. In another scene, he prepares a meal for her, urging her to enjoy her food instead of just scarfing it down: He tells her he put "a lot of backache" into growing those greens and a lot of love into cooking them. "You slow down and just enjoy some of it."
Lazarus' interest in Rae is in no way lascivious. In her semi-conscious state, shortly after he's rescued her, she plants an aggressive, assertive kiss on his lips, and he recoils: The dismay and anguish on Jackson's face shows us very clearly that he's both shocked by her and afraid for her -- she's foreign to him, both sexually and morally, a sharp twist on the cultural stereotype of the black man as sexual predator and conqueror. Ricci and Jackson both give lovely performances, perfectly in tune with the picture's gradual shifting from metaphorical darkness into light. She's a google-eyed angel on a highway to hell; he's a hardy fellow not yet stooped by age, but you can see it coming: Together, their frailties blend into a kind of strength. And Timberlake (the only actor worth watching in the dreadful "Alpha Dog") plays a guy who has to wrestle his own demons of jealousy and anxiety; skinny and haunted, he captures perfectly the essence of a man who's dying for a good night's sleep, or 10.
"Black Snake Moan" is a road movie set in a house, a story of coming a long way while staying put. It's also, as much as anything, a story about music, a distillation of what music can mean to one person, or to many. Brewer frames the picture with archival footage of Son House, explaining that the blues is all about love between a woman and a man: It's the heaven, the hell and everything in between.
Lazarus and Rae bring that idea to life over and over again in "Black Snake Moan." Jackson does his own singing in the movie; he also plays guitar. (Brewer and music coordinator Scott Bomar sent him to study with Mississippi musicians like Big Jack Johnson, Kenny Brown, Cedric Burnside and Sam Carr. One of the inspirations for Lazarus' character was R.L. Burnside, who died before the movie was completed.) When Lazarus finally comes 'round to pulling his life together -- doing so involves picking up his long-dormant guitar -- instead of offering a song of praise to God, he takes a stab at "Stackolee," a story of blood and murder that's been rewritten and reinvigorated almost as many times as it's been sung. It's a very dark song, and Lazarus, finally back from the dead, goes at it with wicked glee: The song's rhythmic repetition is exhilarating, but it's also as comforting and familiar as the rocking of a cradle. Lazarus, performing in a club for the first time in a long while, is surrounded by dancers -- Rae is one of them -- who look as if they're in the throes of ecstasy, sexual or religious or very likely both.
"Stackolee" isn't a particularly nice song, but it's an enduring one, reborn each time it's reinterpreted, reinvented. And so a song about death is also one about everlasting life. Is that a contradiction, or a self-evident truth? When it comes to the blues, sometimes the only answer is another question. And as Lazarus and Rae know, sometimes that's enough.