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Black Snake Moan

Blaxploitation amd Sexploitation meet in the New Millennia

If you go by the provocative posters and "Everything is Hotter Down South" tagline for Black Snake Moan, Craig Brewer's (Hustle and Flow) latest film, you'd probably expect a cheaply made exploitation flick straight out of an earlier, less enlightened era (i.e. the 70s). You'd be both right and wrong -- right because Brewer isn't above indulging in a voyeuristic fetishism of the (white) female form and wrong because the movie is, or tries to be, more than cheap sensationalism or prurient exploitation.

If nothing else, Brewer deserves style and substance points for originality and, with Spike Lee getting on in age and turning his attention increasingly to the documentary format or slick Hollywood fare (e.g. Inside Man), someone had to step in to court race- and sex-related controversy.

For Lazarus Woods (Samuel L. Jackson), a former blues guitarist, singer and songwriter turned god-fearing, church-attending Tennessee farmer, life has taken a turn for the worse. His wife, Rose (Adriane Lenox), has left him for Lazarusí younger brother, Deke (Leonard L. Thomas). Lazarus' friend and preacher, Reverend R. L. (John Cothran Jr.), can only do so much to keep an angry, frustrated Lazarus under control.

Rae (Christina Ricci) is young and self-destructive. She's also in love with Ronnie (Justin Timberlake). Rae, though, finds her life turned upside down when Ronnie leaves for a stint in the military. She goes on a sex and drugs binge and awakens bloodied, battered, and disoriented on Lazarus' couch. Seeing the wounded Rae as a message from God to do good, Lazarus decides to save Rae from her "wicked" ways.

As Brewer proved with Hustle and Flow, he's not only good at attracting top-tier acting talent to roles in his films, he can also direct them into giving strong, convincing performances. Both Christina Ricci and Samuel L. Jackson are excellent here; they both give raw, convincing performances. While laudable on one level (Jackson learned to play the guitar for the role and performed his own songs), he isn't completely believable as a blues singer. Pop-idol-turned-actor Justin Timberlake doesn't fare as well (he was measurably better in Alpha Dog), but that's mostly due to an underwritten, contrived role (his character suffers from a debilitating anxiety disorder) that would cause difficulties for more experienced actors. S. Epatha Merkerson (from "Law and Order" ) steps in to give an understated, affecting performance as Angela, a potential love interest for Lazarus.

It seems, though, that whoever is handling the marketing campaign for Black Snake Moan decided to emphasize the lascivious elements in the premise to the detriment of everything else. The one-sheet has a glistening Jackson in a t-shirt holding one end of a chain while Christina Ricci lies at his feet wrapped at the other end. Still, with a black man, middle-aged or otherwise, holding a white woman hostage, Brewer isnít exactly shying away from any controversy Black Snake Moan is likely to cause. Whether it's the history of slavery, racism, interracial sex, racial stereotypes, sexual abuse, or all five combined, Brewer has no qualms in forcing moviegoers to confront these issues and face their own innate biases and unquestioned prejudices.

Brewer's efforts to illuminate these issues through drama and reminding his audience that they still exist are undoubtedly commendable, but how much light does he really shed on them? How deep does he go? What answers does he give us through Black Snake Moan, assuming, of course, that the film is as much polemic as it is drama. Could those answers have been better served without Ricci running around half-naked for more than half the filmís running time? If the answer is yes, then Brewer, whatever his intentions, is indulging his more voyeuristic, fetishistic desires and not much else.

Ultimately, Black Snake Moan is less thematically coherent and less emotionally rewarding than Hustle and Flow.. If this movie doesnít fully succeed, itís due to Brewer's desire to break away from formulaic storytelling and push for something closer to the way the real world works.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars