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All of the previous, whether mentioned for compliment or for ridicule, belong to the Southern tradition of storytelling, which famously weaves trial-by-fire tales steeped in rhythm and music. And now the Southern literary tradition has a new advocate-filmmaker Craig Brewer.

Brewer’s latest, Black Snake Moan, starring Samuel L. Jackson, Christina Ricci and Justin Timberlake, furthers his take on Southern tradition that began with Hustle and Flow (2005), his first internationally applauded film. As Hip Hop saved Hustle’s Djay (Oscar-nominee Terrence Howard), providing the pimp and hustler the joy of new-found talent, blues unites Black’s odd couple.

Jackson plays Lazarus, fat and bald with rotting teeth—a broken man since his wife’s affair. The old blues man is a blues song; he just needs a scruffy, my-only-friend kind of dog, too weak to run away, and gets it when nymphomaniac Rae (Ricci) is found on Lazarus’ Tennessee farm, half-naked and unconscious from a night of lurid dance, drugs and sex. Her boyfriend Ronnie (Timberlake) has just left for National Guard duty and she couldn’t wait ‘til he got back.

To cure her wicked ways, Lazarus, a man of God, chains Rae to his radiator and “preaches” the devil out of her. They discuss the blues in between.

Not officially ordained, Lazarus joins a cadre of Southern preachers, like Robert Duvall’s womanizing Sonny in The Apostle (1997), and the apocryphal preachers of the Southern Gothic tradition whose zealousness is almost always interpreted as crazy, even if their intention comes from the honest place of exercising faith.

Lazarus gets checked by his own preacher, fearful that a black man who chains a white girl in his house might be too outside-the-box for his own good. The image’s racial connotations are obvious and dangerous anywhere, let alone in Tennessee. But it evokes another theme explored in the Southern tradition, the fear that plays out in the 1915 epic Birth of a Nation (race-mixing galvanizes the Klu Klux Klan who are treated like heroes in this film) and recently in Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning, “Make Me Feel Good!” Monster’s Ball (2001) Leticia.

Brewer shines as he begins to assert his voice through the use of music as a tool of redemption. In the end, broken man and nympho are born again; blues is their baptism. By film’s end, the musician returns to his blues roots and the reluctant witness is transformed by listening to a song.

Okay, we get it. Lazarus is born again like the Lazarus in the bible and Rae is like a ray of light struggling in the darkness of sin. So it’s like metaphors for dummies, right

Wrong. You’ve missed the point. Writer/Director Brewer recognizes simplicity and accentuates complexity. A pimp might only be a pimp because he hasn’t found his muse. And the lost aren’t so lost that they won’t chain a human being to their radiator to cure what infects.

Brewer, like Twain, reveals a stronger and polished voice inside a Southern dialect, spoken by common folk to common folk. And, sometimes, they converse through a song. / Issue 66 - September 5022
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