Just a hair too late for Black History Month, and just as well, Black Snake Moan wriggles at the far edge of the socially acceptable. It does so with some of the fearlessness of the exploitation films of the Sixties and Seventies: the title itself distinctly echoes Blacksnake, the contribution of Russ Meyer, "King of the Nudies," to the racial discourse. Except that today the fearlessness faces tougher scrutiny, not the friendly reception of a specialized audience in a fragmented market, at the corner of the public eye, but right out in plain view, smack in the middle of the mainstream, next door to Norbit at the multiplex. That would seem to demand an even greater fearlessness, if the filmmaker didn't exercise some self-restraint, draw back from the edge, hedge his bets. The filmmaker in question, Craig Brewer, who so happens to be white, earned himself a lot of rope, if not free rein, with his breakout film of a couple of years back, Hustle and Flow. I myself could not see what was the big deal about that one, a clump of pimp-and-pusher clichés set to a hip-hop beat, a virtual coalition of clichés. This one's a bigger deal. A fresher deal. A spicier deal. A racier deal.
The central image of the film (and, in a demurer version, its poster) is that of a battered and bruised young white woman in crop top and cotton bikini panties, chained at the waist on a thirty-foot tether, in the cabin of an old Southern black man. But please don't misunderstand. It's for her own good: "I aim to cure you of your wickedness." The film takes its own sweet time to show how she ended up, in her clad-only condition, bloody eye, bloody nose, bloody lip, at the side of the road in front of that cabin; and it doesn't blanch at the seamy details in the life of this desanitized Daisy Mae, this archetypal Town Slut (a scrawny Christina Ricci, throwing herself into the part, or what's left of herself, with reckless abandon), running wild in the first hours after her fiancé (Justin Timberlake, a credible Joe Six-Pack where he has never been a credible Sex Symbol) has shipped out into the service, sashaying around the streets in shorty-short jean cutoffs and Dale Evans cowboy boots, showing off at various times to various eyes the various tattoos on her lower back, shoulder blade, abdomen, right breast, fueling a nasty cough with an endless cigarette, generally conducting herself with all the wantonness of the average porn heroine. "Easy" isn't the half of it. "Sickness" is the black man's diagnosis. An ex-bluesman with gold teeth and the dome of Disney's Uncle Remus (Samuel L. Jackson, forceful as usual, but with more than usual to be forceful about), he has his own miseries, living the life of his musical repertoire, watching his younger wife run off with his own brother, then driving his tractor through the patch of Rose's Roses to obliterate her memory, sweeping her possessions into plastic garbage bags, drinking himself blind, waking up to find this broken sparrow of a woman dumped at his doorstep.
When the two paths have finally crossed, there's no need to ask why a black man of that generation would not immediately call the police. Instead, he does what he sees as the Christian thing, nursing her back to health himself; and the chain around her waist is but a logical, if innovative and provocative, extension. The film can thus indulge, practically guilt-free, in assorted bondage imagery (to say nothing of inverted slavery imagery), and it is littered with suggestive poses suitable for the cover of a Torrid Paperback, more than enough of these for the Complete Works of Erskine Caldwell. Despite the depth and warmth of the relationships (special nods to John Cothran as the persevering preacher and to S. Epatha Merkerson as the sympathetic pharmacist), despite, too, the palpable pity for the emotionally and intellectually handicapped, and despite the reverent, and on one occasion rowdy, celebration of the Southern blues tradition, the film never really transcends its trashiness. It wallows in it. With gusto.
Amazing Grace, just under the wire for Black History Month last weekend, is an altogether more pious affair, an old-school screen biography (or hagiography) of the English abolitionist, William Wilberforce, who spearheaded the anti-slavery movement in Parliament from the late 18th Century to the early 19th, a long, slow struggle against the forces of entrenched economics. On the virtuous side of every issue -- in favor of free education, opposed to animal cruelty -- and an eligible bachelor to boot (and in Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, a broodingly handsome one), he is obviously a man we should be better acquainted with, and in that sense the movie performs a public service. The higher sense in which a movie may perform a public service, however, is by being a good movie; and a right-minded one about such a clear-cut and long-established right is apt to lack a little something in tension. To have dramatized this story in, say, 1807 would have been a different matter. From two centuries' distance, it plays as not so much a drama as a ceremony, a consecration, appropriately culminating in an on-screen standing ovation, followed by an editorial eulogy, followed by a sitting ovation. Under the experienced directorial hand of Michael Apted, the movie is well dressed and well decorated and well acted (Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds, Albert Finney, Bill Paterson, Rufus Sewell, Romola Garai, Benedict Cumberbatch), and yet the "artfully" faded image looks all too literally like the ashes of time.
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You'll have to take my word for it (my wife might back me up), but one year recently when I was grousing in private about the recipient of the career-achievement Oscar -- Peter O'Toole, probably -- I wondered out loud why we always had to give it to an actor (as distinct from an actress) or to a director: "Why can't we give it," I said in specific, "to Ennio Morricone?" From my lips to Oscar's ear. So I was happy last Sunday to see the prolific and protean Italian composer get such recognition. I didn't see a lot else to be happy about. (Maybe with a little more practice Cate Blanchett can be as good an actress as Jennifer Hudson.) I was resigned, no more and no less, to the inevitability of Marty Scorsese winning a Best Director award, in the same way as I was resigned to Peyton Manning winning a Super Bowl. I guess I would have been happier if he had had to wait till after Marty Schottenheimer.