Musicals are a tricky thing to pull off. Whether they are on stage or in a film so many of them can fall flat if the mind behind them isn’t exceptional or they have a team behind them that is exceptional. But when they do and they get it right, they have the ability to go beyond the simple box that people tend to place them in. To put women and children and men in the seats eager to experience the magic that flows from them. And then there are films like Black Snake Moan. The type that occupies this weird middle place that is both great and controversial at the same time, great because of the music that is used within it (the director suggests that while not your typical musical, it is a musical) and controversial because of the subject matter that it deals with throughout the film.
A film like this can sometimes attract a very narrow audience given the basic framework of how the story plays out, but I can’t help but feel that a wider audience should have the benefit of watching it and trying to understand the concepts and ideas that the film is all about. It centers around two main characters, Rae (played by Christina Ricci), and Lazarus (played by Samuel L Jackson), two people who are both broken inside for different reasons that have never met but through a series of unfortunate circumstances will be thrust together and force each other to deal with what broke them in the first place.
Now I can hear people who have never heard of the movie saying, what’s so controversial about that? It sounds like your typical everyday Hollywood plot. And I can see how people might jump to that conclusion, but where the controversy comes in is in how they end up forced to deal with each other. Lazarus, because of many of the circumstances that brought Rae to him, is forced to tie a chain around Rae’s waist and keep her chained to the house until he can figure out a way to help her. She also happens to spend most of her time around the house half naked. I know, it sounds like the beginning of a torture porn film like Saw, or the premise for a really well written porn film. Many of the people who have seen the film have come to the conclusion that the chain is a metaphor for men needing to assert their power over women, and that in order to control women they have to be domesticated.
I however would take a much broader view of the film in really analyzing it. The director, for all intents and purposes, has tried to plead the fifth on whether or not the message of the film is anti-feminist. Honestly, I don’t think feminism enters into the equation of this film. Not all films have to have female empowerment or feminist, or anti-feminist messages in them, in the same way that not all movies with a racially diverse cast have to be about race. Some movies do, and some don’t. My opinion is that this movie isn’t really about race, or female empowerment. It’s a film about trauma.
Both the main characters are dealing with a type of trauma. Both of them have had key people in their lives leave them for one reason or another recently and they are both trying to come to terms with the fact that they are now alone, either temporarily or permanently. Rae being the one who has more troubles then she knows what to deal with, is metaphorically and literally tied down by the pain of what she’s going through and Lazarus is trying to help her see the metaphorical chain that she refuses to set herself free from. And so the question becomes:
Who was more tied down by Black Snake Moan? The audience or the characters?