REALLY, WE’RE ALL MESSED-UP
AN INTERVIEW WITH WRITER-DIRECTOR CRAIG BREWER
He calls it the Black Snake Moan. Anyone who’s seen the trailer for Craig Brewer’s new film Black Snake Moan knows that Christina Ricci’s character, Rae, has got something wrong with her; it’s some kind of fever. Moan is about a troubled, sick, young girl and the black man who chains her to his radiator in order to cure her of her ills.
After seeing the movie, however, one might wonder what the ailment really is. Is it nymphomania? What’s she got? Just what is the Black Snake Moan?
“It is part of that Southern mythological landscape that I’m trying to put in this stew of a movie,” writer-director Craig Brewer says of his latest film. “The whole idea came from me having these really intense anxiety attacks that were happening when I was making Hustle and Flow.”
It was a very stressful time for Brewer, because during the production of Hustle, he didn’t have a job or any money.
“And everybody at home thought I had made it, because I was being flown out to LA all the time. On one of these flights, I just, uh,” Brewer pauses and gestures out from his chest, “I started losing control. My heart started racing, and I couldn’t get enough oxygen in my lungs.”
Brewer’s father died of a heart attack at age 49. Therefore, Brewer thought that he must have been dying.
“It is the adrenaline rush that would come over you, but you’re still. It was the first time I really started to think about dying, and the randomness of death: that you would just go any minute.”
It took time for Brewer to talk to his wife about the recurring panic attacks.
“I kept it from my wife for a while, but finally I told her, and she said that she had experienced it, too,” reveals Brewer. “We went through a difficult time with this thing that was really messing with us. And, really, we grew stronger, because we were helping each other.”
He called it the Black Snake Moan. It’s actually based in the Blues.
“There’s a song by Blind Lemon Jefferson where he’s talking about being blind and not being able to see the snakes and the bugs and things that could hurt him in his room at night. And he would sing about how he just wanted some pretty momma to come and take them away.”
Luckily for Brewer, the attacks did go away. But the memories remained, and he channeled them into Moan. The director then added a chain wielded by a reverential Afro-American and a young, sexy, half-naked, white woman on the other end.
“The chain and the radiator [featured in Moan] are very metaphorical to me,” Brewer admits. “They are Memphis and my home. I think of my community as that thing that, no matter what I’m doing out in LA, if things are kinda going crazy in the movie business, I’m not judged by my home or my family; they love me unconditionally. And I have a tendency to forget about that; we all forget about that.”
Brewer finds it interesting that people have criticized the racial and sexual overtones of his film as being exploitive. He finds it even more interesting that most of the people who have found it exploitive tend to be “middle-aged white men.”
“Boy, are we a scared bunch, and we’re so cautious about these things,” beams Brewer cavalierly. He’s just 35, and already referring to himself as middle-aged.
“I’ve noticed it more and more on this movie that white, middle-aged men are afraid to find that the titillating moments are enough for them. Is it okay for them to appreciate a movie where a white woman is chained up to a black man’s radiator? And should it mean something? Should we explore race? Should we explore gender? And, I’m just not interested in that at all.”
He does admit that the chain, the woman, the black man, and the radiator, together present a “jarring” image. But, he takes criticism head on.
“If you’re talking about Southern archetypes, especially in the Deep South, you can’t do it effectively unless you got those chains.” Continuing, “It definitely has that drive-in exploitation feel of those race-bating movies. But the chain, I think, is something much more metaphoric. When I was insane and I was out of control, I felt like I needed some kind of weight on me. I needed some sort of boundary, and I needed to be yanked back. And that meant being tethered to something that does not move—church, community, family, friends, the city of Memphis was really my radiator.”
Hustle and Flow was Brewer’s “rap” movie. Black Snake Moan is his Blues movie. Music is becoming a familiar theme in all of his projects. His next film will be his “Country” music film. All the genres seemed to be linked for Brewer.
“There’s a chain between Blues and rap that I think is very strong,” he opines. “It is going to take awhile for young people who are into hip-hop to discover the Blues.”
Black Snake Moan features archival black-and-white footage of classic bluesman Son House, who explains to us the meaning of this music. Brewer elaborates: “When I look at Blues music, it’s exorcism music. It is music where you do get all those taboos out of you.”
“These bluesmen, back in the Delta, were some of the first pioneers in this kind of exorcism in a time and a place where these African-American artists were told they couldn’t say things. But they did say them. They were speaking to the injustices in life, as well as social injustice, but also, the injustices of loving.”
In Moan, Brewer’s bluesman is Lazarus, who’s played by Samuel L. Jackson. Lazarus is a flawed but essentially moral man. Yes, Brewer makes maximum use of Jackson’s ability to say one particular expletive better than any other actor in history. But, the mystique of the flawed artist wasn’t lost on Brewer when crafting the Moan.
“One thing I always give artists credit for is that we beat people to the punch. We’re the first to say we’re messed-up. And, if anything, that’s sort of the message of Black Snake Moan: that we’re all messed-up, but we’re all each other’s responsibility, and we all gotta start caring for each other more. “