Reviewed by

Christopher Armstead

A good friend of mine, though he is a fan of actor Samuel L. (I knew you when you were just Sam) Jackson, maintains that he is one of the worst working actors in movies today. This gentlemen says that unless Mr. Jackson is playing over the top thug characters, i.e., Jules from ‘Pulp Fiction’, Gator from ‘Jungle Fever’, Ordell Robbie from ‘Jackie Brown’ or voicing over Gin Rummy from ‘The Boondocks, he’s damn near unwatchable. I try to step up to the plate and defend my man Sam because I’ll always remember him from the opening sketch in Eddie Murphy’s ‘Raw’ playing his uncle or That Dude in the KFC in Spike Lee’s ‘School Daze’. But my friend has a few trump cards up his sleeve tossing in Sam’s performances in films such as ‘Amos and Andrew’, ‘Shaft’, ‘Twisted’, ‘Basic’, ‘The 51st State’ the terminable ‘Home of the Brave’… eventually leading me to yell SHUT THE F@$K UP!!! I agree with you already! I inform my friend that a lot of those roles Sam took only because his name was on a check with seven or so figures on it, but I realize that this is no excuse. Well I have him now because not only can Samuel L. play the over the top thuggish n-word character (n-word… I’m actually greenlit by birthright to use the n-word so I don’t know why I don’t), but Sam can also play a soulful country bluesman like my man Lazarus in Craig Brewer’s ‘Black Snake Moan’.

Lazarus (Jackson) is a bluesman who certainly knows a thing or two about the blues. His wife Mayella (Ruby Brown) is leaving him, which is bad enough, but compounded by the fact that she’s leaving him to be with his brother. I can hear the beer bottle sliding down the neck of that guitar even as we speak. Rae (Christina Ricci) knows a thing a two about pain too. Her one true love Ronnie (Justin Timberlake), who has his own major issues, is off to fight in Iraq and with Johnny gone, there is no one around

to quell the heat that rises up in Rae, brought upon by years of child abuse, which has made her the towns whore. After a night of wild partying, drugging and drinking on the football field, Rae, wearing nothing but a pair of football shoulder pads, gets into a car with Johnny’s best friend and eventually finds her self raped, beaten, and thrown on the side of the road. Lazarus finds the physically damaged young hussy and immediately knows this girl has the ‘sickness’ and takes it upon himself to cure her. At great personal risk as we’re talking about a Black man in the deep south chaining a perfectly good white girl to radiator in his home.  Anyway, Lazarus sets about the business of fixing Rae, but not without significant challenges.

Eventually Johnnie’s problems get him sent right back home after being gone less than a week and is he wondering where the hell is girl is, and Lazarus’ good friend Reverend R.L. (John Cothran Jr.) thinks Lazarus has plum lost his last mind. But Lazarus, with the help of his chain and his trusty guitar is determined to help this wayward soul get right, and maybe help himself get right in the process.

‘Black Snake Moan’ is a fairly amazing film, better even than Brewer’s previous film, the more celebrated ‘Hustle and Flow’. Craig Brewer captures the heat and swelter of the south so well that you would think he was the direct descendent of Tennessee Williams. ‘Black Snake Moan’ permeates with a raw, gritty, unrestrained authenticity that you can feel from the first frame to when the credits role. From the locations to the performances, this is a film that just feels right. I suppose it helps that I spent a large portion of my childhood in Memphis, when it was still rural where my grandmother lived, running around barefoot picking peaches of trees. It ain’t rural no more though. Damn you Home Depot.

But of course the best locations and atmosphere and music mean nothing without the performances to deliver them to you and all of the actors did stellar work in bringing Brewers words and images to life. This is arguably Sam Jackson’s, err… Samuel L. Jackson’s best performance ever, and that includes Jules. He makes you feel Lazarus’ pain when his wife leaves him, his anger when he confronts his brother, his compassion when he tries to help Rae and his resolve when confronted with Timberlake’s Johnny. About Justin Timberlake, in the awful movie ‘Edison Force’, despite the presence of Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman, I had to point out that of the problems with that film, in which there were many, one of them wasn’t Justin Timberlake. Perhaps kid can act as well as make worthless pop songs because he was very good in this, particularly when paired with Ricci (Damn Wednesday Adams, put some clothes on). Both characters are so damaged and flawed, but characterized with such humanity that it’s hard not to emphasize for both of them. With fine support work thrown in by Cothran Jr., S. Epatha Merkeson as Lazarus potential love interest, Kim Wilson as Rae’s suspect mother and hip hop artist David Banner as the drug dealing Theronne who just makes this dirty south location look all the more dirtier.

Obviously I enjoyed ‘Black Snake Moan’ and could find little fault in it, other than the suspect marketing campaign. The music, the performances, the sets… certainly, in my opinion, a film that deserved a much better shake than it got when it first landed in theaters. Damn Wednesday, put some clothes on. You ain’t gotta prove to me you aren’t a child actress no more.

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