There are few things in this world as gratifying as watching Samuel L. Jackson beat the living snot out of somebody. Even better if he prefaces the beating by quoting random bible passages (as he did so memorably in Pulp Fiction). And that’s exactly what you get in his new film, Black Snake Moan. In just the first thirty minutes, he’s already attacking his ex-wife’s lover with a broken bottle, muttering about Cain and Abel and making cryptic demands like, “Say you love me, nigger!”
Black Snake Moan also features Christina Ricci in her most sexually ferocious role since The Opposite of Sex. She spends the vast majority of the movie in little more than panties and a half-shirt, and she literally seduces anything with so much as a heartbeat. But despite Ricci’s scorching eroticism, her character is such a clearly unstable young woman that it’s impossible to feel aroused with a clean conscious. It’s one of those rare performances that manage to be both sexy and profoundly disturbing.
Black Snake Moan, the sophomore effort from Hustle & Flow director Craig Brewer, is a difficult film to sum up in a few words. Short version: It’s about an old blues musician named Lazarus who kidnaps the town’s resident slut and tries to cure her of her devilish ways. Slightly more complicated version: It’s about two emotionally damaged people looking for a connection, and going about it in all the wrong ways. It’s about lust and redemption, self-imposed isolation and the healing power of the blues. It’s a film that’s likely to leave you feeling uncomfortable, and not just when Jackson starts singing about putting nine bullets in the “motherfucking chest” of a guy who didn’t know his name.
I sat down with Jackson and Ricci to talk about sex, racism and religion (or “spirituality,” depending on who you believe). In person, they’re like negative images of each other. Jackson is almost impossibly large and animated, while Ricci is tiny and soft-spoken. At no point during our discussion did Jackson threaten me with bodily harm while referencing scripture verses, for which I was both relieved and, strangely, somewhat disappointed.
Eric Spitznagel: Black Snake Moan is about an old blues musician who chains a sexually promiscuous woman to his radiator and tries to drive the devil out of her. There are a lot of ways you could read into that. What did the chains represent to you?
Christina Ricci: I thought they represented chains. (Laughs.) I tend to take these things pretty literally.
You don’t think the chains were a metaphor for something?
Samuel L. Jackson: Not really. For me, the chains were what he used to keep her there. It was about making sure she didn’t leave the house until my character thought she was ready to go.
Wow, okay, so that pretty much blows my whole theory.
[Jackson and Ricci laugh.]
I had all these questions about the metaphorical “chains” of religion, and whether that’s a good or bad thing.
S: This really isn’t a movie about religion. It’s about spirituality.
Really? Lazarus spends an awful lot of time talking about Jesus.
C: But that’s mostly because it’s set in the south. One thing I noticed after being down in Mississippi for the shoot was that words like “God” and “Jesus” are used all the time, but they’re not specifically referring to Jesus. It’s sort of this accepted phraseology for love, or spirituality, or whatever it is you personally believe in. They call it Jesus, but they don’t always mean Jesus.
I don’t know. I have yet to meet a southerner who isn’t a fundamentalist. When they say Jesus, they usually mean the dude with the beard.
S: That’s true. But the bond that develops between these characters isn’t necessarily about religion. Lazarus starts out trying to help her for all the wrong reasons. But eventually, all that reading-the-bible-to-her shit kinda goes away, and it’s just about two people talking to each other and finding out who they are and where they are.
It’s kinda surprising that they became friends at all. Usually when somebody chains you to a radiator…
C: [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s never a good sign. When you wake up chained to something, that’s not good.
It’s got Misery connotations. You don’t think, “Gosh, maybe this person who dragged me to an old shack in the middle of nowhere and is keeping me prisoner against my will has some interesting insights about life.”
S: But that loss of control is important. It’s at the core of what’s driving these people. For her, it’s about controlling her sexual abuse, which she does by abusing herself. And Lazarus lost control of a woman who left him, and now he’s got this girl who needs help and he’s going to take control of her. “I’m going to fix you so you’re not as fucked up as that woman who got away from me.”
If there’s a lesson in all this, I guess it’s that people with problems shouldn’t try to fix people with problems.
C: But that’s human. That’s what everybody does.
And they probably shouldn’t. When somebody says, “I’m going to take control of your life because I know what’s best for you,” is that ever a good thing?
C: Sometimes, yeah.
S: All kids need boundaries. When my mom used to say that shit to me, I’d think, “I’ll never do that to my kids.” But you end up doing and saying the same things. Everybody has to learn that the world works in very specific ways, and you’re not in charge of it. There’s always going to be somebody else in control of your shit. [Turns to Ricci.] We were just talking about that this morning.
C: Yeah, when it comes to getting (acting) jobs.
S: When you’re an actor, you’re constantly giving up control. You show up on the set and you gotta deal with some motherfucker in charge, somebody who has control over your own creative space. There’s always some guy saying, [in a nasally voice] “That’s too much! Pull it back!” Or, “That was great, can we do it again?”
C: At least on this film, Sam protected me from things like that.
S: Yeah, we developed a relationship that kinda mirrored the characters we were playing.
Except without the iron restraints?
S: [Laughs.] Yeah, without that shit. She’s just so wide the fuck open as an actor and ready to do anything. Sometimes Craig (Brewer, the director) would try to get her to do something, and I’d have to say, “Whoa! No, that ain’t gonna happen!”
C: The second they find out you can do something, they want you to do it again and again and again. It’s like a parlor trick. “You can do that? Oh wow, do it some more. Do it for ten minutes ‘cause you’re awesome. Can you do it over there? Can you do it standing on your head?”
S: Yeah. “Goddamn that made me feel good. Do it again!” And you can’t do it again because you had your first rush. Your first rush is as good as it gets.
C: To Craig’s credit, I felt totally safe on the set. And because I felt safe, Sam had to protect me. He got upset at all the physical stuff Craig wanted me to do. When I start doing stuff like that, all the screaming and running, I kinda go out of my head. I’m not necessarily in my own body anymore. And, y’know… [smiles sheepishly] I can be stupid sometimes.
Was there a real danger that you might hurt yourself?
S: That wasn’t a plastic chain in the movie. They had one on the set, but she didn’t want to use it. She wanted the real thing. She was battered and bruised and beaten.
C: I had a piece of wood lodged in my leg for most of the shoot.
S: There was one scene where Craig says to her, “Run out the door and knock over this old phonograph.” Excuse me? That’s a real fucking phonograph. That shit is heavy.
C: [Laughs.] Oh my god, that’s right! And I was half-naked.
S: I was like, “What the fuck is going on here?! Do you not understand this shit is dangerous?” We get hurt doing this shit, and they don’t realize it because they’re just, “Wooooow, that was amazing!” Motherfucker, I am fucked up over here!
C: They have no idea. “It looked so real.” Yeah, it was fucking real. And it really fucking hurt.
Not many actors have the cojones to stand up to a pushy director. Did you approach Craig as a united front?
C: I have so much respect for Sam that if I had questions about anything, I would call and ask him if he agreed with me before I brought it up with Craig. When you’re working with first or second-time directors, they usually don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about, and they don’t know how to talk to actors.
S: And it can get really difficult if he’s had some degree of success with his first film. It takes a special kind of person to have smoke blown up your ass all year and then be able to look in the mirror and not say, “I’m a bad motherfucker.” You know what I mean? If you’re working with actors and you don’t try to win every argument by saying, “Remember my first film? Yeah, I’m a bad motherfucker.” It takes something special to say, “Tell me what you think.”
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room that the movie never openly addresses. A black guy chaining a white girl to a radiator is a pretty racially loaded premise. You think that might scare some audiences away?
S: I actually think it’s going to be the intriguing plot point that brings people into the film. When they see the dynamic between the two of us, it’ll open some eyes, open some minds, and clear some fears.
C: You only think about the race thing for a second, when Lazarus makes the decision to take her into his house.
S: And then there’s the question, is he gonna touch her or is she gonna try to seduce him like she does with everybody else? That dynamic is always hanging in the air. But when you see what our relationship starts to become, that fear goes away and it’s more about, “I kinda want her to sleep with him.”
I think the racial tension is a little more powerful than the sexual tension. I found myself flinching every time a character used the N-word. Do you think it’s healthy to expose audiences to so much blatant racism?
S: You have to talk the way people talk. I use the word nigger every day, especially when I’m with my friends. We refer to each other that way. It’s part of our culture. I grew up with that word, so I understand when people are using it the wrong way and I understand when they’re just using it. I’m sure there are a lot of Italians who refer to themselves as goombahs and greaseballs and whatever. That’s what people do. It gives them a sort of familiarity that other people don’t have.
C: My boyfriend is Jewish, and he calls himself a kike every five seconds.
Lenny Bruce once said that if you repeat an ethnic slur enough times, it loses its power. Do you agree?
S: That’s not necessarily true. People like to believe it, but a word like nigger never loses its power.
C: The meaning doesn’t disappear, and that’s what makes words like that so dangerous.
S: If you say kike enough, it’s still gonna mean kike. If you say nigger enough, it’s still going to mean nigger. It has nothing to do with how often you use it. It’s the intention behind the word that matters.
So it’s okay if another black person says the n-word, but not if a redneck in a pickup says it?
S: Pretty much, yeah. I said the same thing to Quentin (Tarantino). He had that line in Pulp Fiction, “Does this look like dead nigger storage?” I told him, when you say nigger, n-i-g-g-e-r [shudders and grimaces], it’s like fingernails on a blackboard to black people. But if you say nigga, n-i-g-g-a, it’s a word we say all the time. It’s a familiar term and not a derogative term. When I was a kid growing up in the south, I remember hearing white people use words like nigra, which is almost negro. They used that word when they were trying to be proper and inoffensive. But nigra sounds just as bad as going ahead and saying nigger. It’s just as offensive.
Watching Black Snake Moan made me think of Borat. Some critics believed that audiences laughed at Borat’s Jew-bashing without realizing that it’s a satire of anti-Semitism. The same thing could happen here. Audiences might focus on the revenge aspects of a black man enslaving a white woman, or the fact that you (Christina) are nearly naked for most of the movie. Are you concerned that Black Snake Moan could get a fan following for all the wrong reasons?
C: That worries me an awful lot. If people misunderstand our intentions, especially regarding my character, then they’re essentially exploiting an already exploited and abused woman. So it’s a huge concern for me. One of the things I loved about this script is that my character exemplifies the kind of girl that exists everywhere in our culture. She was badly abused as a child, and when she grows up, she thinks she can regain some of that power by exploiting herself. But the world judges her as a slut, and then dismisses her as a slut. Our society tends to take advantage of girls like that rather than recognizing their behavior as a cry for help. They put them on the covers of magazines, they sell cars with them…
S: They’re in hip-hop videos and strip clubs.
C: Our society doesn’t want to help girls like that. They just want to use them. So if an audience doesn’t get that this is a movie about overcoming exploitation, it could come across as incredibly misogynistic. That would be the worst thing in the world for me.
But you can’t really control how your characters are perceived, can you? If audiences just want to see Rae as a hot nymphomaniac, what can you do?
C: Nothing, really. But hopefully what you do as an actor is strong enough and has enough of an impact that people get what you’re trying to communicate.
S: And if nothing else, maybe we’ll get a lot of support from nymphomaniacs. [Laughs.] I’d like to see them lined up in the (movie theater’s) lobby, chanting, “We’re people too!”
I don’t think there’s ever been a film that really struck a chord with the nympho demographic.
S: I just want to know who they are. If I could see them picketing outside the theater… [With a smirking leer.] “Oh, really, you’re one of them? Well… hello, baby.” [Laughs.]
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the March 2007 issue of Mean magazine.)