Black Snake Moan: A Critical Watch
“Everything is hotter down south” is the tagline for the 2006 film Black Snake Moan. Its poster depicts a disgruntled Samuel L. Jackson holding a petite, young, half-naked white woman on a chain as she kneels like a dog at his feet(IMDB). In the film, recently heartbroken Lazarus(Samuel L. Jackson) finds town whore Rae(Christina Ricci) beaten on the ground and takes her in, eventually chaining her to the radiator in an attempt to cure her ailments. The film is both sexually and politically provocative but while the poster seems to promise a red-blooded interracial erotica, in reality, the film provides what is intended to be a heartwarming tale about an unlikely pair of misfits who help each other heal from their wounds and develop a father-daughter dynamic, leaving the political implications (intended or otherwise) opaque. Through the lenses of both Iris Marion Young’s Five Faces of Oppression as well as Maria Lugones's discussion in the essay Towards a Decolonial Feminism, it becomes apparent that main characters Lazarus and Rae are anthropomorphic stand-ins for oppressor and oppressed and that, despite swapping the races compared to real-life power dynamics, Black Snake Moan ultimately affirms the dominant colonial construction of gender.
Three of the five faces of oppression stand out as being present in the relationship between Lazarus and Rae, keeping in mind that these three terms are meant to describe groups of people. Mapping them onto two individuals means the fit is not exact but I argue the specificity pushes the dynamic between the two main characters from coincidentally similar, to anthropomorphic. Starting first with marginalization, Young defines marginals as “...people the system of labor cannot and will not use”(5). Specifically, in the context of capitalism as Young discusses, being unable to produce within the system leaves one dependent on the welfare of the dominant party for survival(5). This dependency “... implies being legitimately subject to the often arbitrary and invasive authority of social service providers...who enforce rules with which the marginal must comply”(Young 6). Not only is Rae dependant on Lazarus by virtue of being chained, half-dressed, unable to cook, unaware of where she is, and ill, effectively removing all autonomy over her survival and bodily function, Lazarus also sees her as being dependant on him to cure her illness, that being her nymphomania/ wickedness/ cough, physical, mental and spiritual functionally and narratively one and the same(Black Snake Moan). It is the dependency that justifies Lazarus’s ruling over her, scolding her for cursing, picking “respectable” clothes for her that he deems fit to wear, and effectively converting her to Christianity and its values, specifically surrounding sexuality. Lazarus affirms the exchange of dependency for power when he says “I saved your life, girl! I can do or say whatever the fuck I want!”(Black Snake Moan 44:25-44:31) Young points out privacy and respect as being common rights denied to the marginalized because of their dependency(6). The total absence of privacy and respect is what makes the poster and the film’s imagery so shocking, a person half-clothed, held on a chain like an animal. The shocking lack of agency bleeds into the next face of oppression present in this film, powerlessness.
“...the powerless are situated so that they must take orders and rarely have the right to give them” according to Young(7). Not only is Rae physically powerless by nature of her size and strength, we see her come to the realization that, in her specific predicament, she is socially powerless. Lazarus makes mention of her power as a white woman, referencing the trouble he could be in if the cops were to encounter him in the presence of a beaten “half-naked white woman”, conjuring the perceived fragility, purity, and value of a white woman that would inspire great violence to avenger, but we never see this power come to fruition(Black Snake Moan 1:01:35-1:02:05). When she first becomes aware of her captivity, she screams for help but none comes(Black Snake Moan 45:25-47:45). There is also her sexual power, which she attempts to leverage on several occasions to secure her freedom but Lazarus’s conspicuous and anomalous lack of sexual attraction to her leaves her with no means to assert her will over Lazarus, even indirectly through suggestion or manipulation(Black Snake Moan). As Young says “The powerless are those who lack authority or power, even in this mediated sense”(7).
Cultural imperialism is described by Young as “...the universalization of a dominant group’s experience and culture, and its establishment as the norm”(9). Much of how Lazarus embodies this as an oppressor can be seen in the line “I aim to cure you of your wickedness”(Black Snake Moan 45:02). Lazarus says this line without ever consulting Rae about her state or experiences, only knowing her through the minutes she’s been lucid and conscious and secondhand accounts. The word “cure” immediately judges Rae’s promiscuity as an ailment, meaning foreign to her being, worthy of removal and outside of her control, immediately erasing the possibility of her having sexual autonomy. The use of the term “wickedness” implies his Christian beliefs and foists them onto Rae and her actions, her later expressions of atheism/ agnosticism treated as the petulant outbursts of a girl who is sick, delegitimizing them as true and worthy beliefs. Rae finds herself “...defined from the outside, positioned, placed...from those with whom they do not identify and who do not identify with them”(Young 401). It’s important to reiterate Rae and Lazarus, narratively speaking Rae and Lazarus exist as entities of oppression and oppressor in and of themselves, not stand-ins for white and black real world cultures. Strangely, the film is relatively color-blind in depicting cultural differences between black and white people. Blacks and whites are depicted as socioeconomically equal as poor and working-class members of a rural town and the slight difference in religious devotion corresponds to a difference in age, where the young white people are fairly disinterested and the older black people being overtly Christian to varying degrees(Black Snake Moan).
Iris Marion Young points out that not all five faces of oppression are required to be present in order for a group to be called oppressed, that any one is sufficient to call a group oppressed(2-3). Two of these faces, exploitation, and violence, are conspicuously missing. In regards to exploitation, we see Lazarus confidently deny Rae’s sexual advances, receiving no sexual labor from her, and is gentle and doting with her to the point of infantilization(Black Snake Moan). There are two occasions we see him act violently toward her but they are anomalous situations. Firstly, when Lazarus scrapes Rae when trying to pull her back into the house with the all-important chain, he responds to her cries of pain “Now whose doing is that?”, implying his violence is not violence at all, but the direct result of Rae’s choice to be obstinate. The camera, which regards Lazarus as our hero throughout the film, seems to agree with him, comically hard cutting to their scuffle, highlighting Rae’s futile efforts and Lazarus’s calm will(Black Snake Moan 47:13-47:20). Secondly, Lazarus accidentally applies too much pressure while tending to her wounds only because he gets caught up thinking about his ex-wife Rose, going as far to speak to Rae as if speaking to his wife, the confusion of the two women being very thematically important, as will be discussed later on(Black Snake Moan 49:25-50:28). Were Lazarus to be violent or exploitative, were he to be depicted in an aggressive sexual counter with Rae or seducing her into his will somehow, we would have a story more akin to what the poster promised, that being a black cuckolding fantasy, be it the conservative tale of warning or the modern pornographic story meant for the erotic embarrassment of white men. The poster and its attempt to elicit a positive sexual response would imply the latter which, at least superficially, would imply a reversal of the real world. However, it would appear that that is not the case.
We see Rae transform through her confinement with Lazarus from a promiscuous, disloyal harlot to a pure, blushing, and doting bride. Through analyzing the imagery and characters associated with these two states, we begin to see a colonial conception of gender emerge. Maria Lugones states “...the dichotomous hierarchy between the human and the non-human'' is central to coloniality, with gender as its central dichotomy. Gender is a trait of human beings. Only human beings are men and women. What is dehumanized is degendered(Lugones 743-744). When Rae is at her lowest state at the beginning of the film, Rae is associated with the earth, Satan, animals, and, most importantly black women. We see Rae before transformation, often on the ground, at one point crawling through the mud on all fours in an incoherent, non-communicative state, running when spooked and most overtly, chained and restrained much like the dogs on Lazarus’s property(Black Snake Moan 37:21-38:55) This low state is defined by her promiscuity, the central ill Lazarus is trying to cure. Lugones accounts for the status of African American bodies: “...Africans were classified as not human in species, as animals, uncontrollably sexual”(743). In Black Snake Moan, the three black female characters are all depicted as being unabashedly sexual, with very little else to define their characters. Angela, the pharmacist who unknowingly helps Lazarus cure Rae, seems to only be motivated by a polite, but obvious attraction to Lazarus. Mayella, who Lazarus encounters in the bar, is explicit in her attempts to seduce him, even as Lazarus pointedly dismisses her. Finally Rose, Lazarus’s ex-wife, leaves her domestic life because of her sexual attraction to Lazarus’s brother only after committing the ultimate sin of sexual autonomy, having an abortion(Black Snake Moan 1:17:23-1:18:50). Lazarus notices this similarity just as he comes to the conclusion that Rae’s illness is a spiritual one when she inadvertently quotes Rose, screaming out “See if I give a shit about any of you people!”(Black Snake Moan 35:10-35:20). The line is rather anomalous and out of character at the moment Rae yells it out, seeming, from a narrative perspective to only be included to solidify Rae’s connection to Rose. The big difference between the two is that Lazarus’s holding her in captivity cured Rae. It failed on Rose.
Lugones offers an important insight to bring meaning to this difference. She describes the colonial mission of “civilizing” the colonized as “...the euphemistic mask of brutal access to people’s bodies...turning the colonized into human beings was not the colonial goal”(Lugones 744). If gender is a tool of colonization, not of transformation, and gender is denied to the colonized via their dehumanization, as Lugones puts “...no women are colonized, no colonized are women…”(745). The change was never possible for Rose. Where Rose’s behavior is simply a part of her character, Rae’s is depicted as a sickness, a thing that can be removed, that is getting in the way. Through oppressing Rae, as I have explained above, Lazarus returns Rae to a normative state. “...sexual purity, passivity and being homebound in service of the white, European, bourgeois man..” are all traits that define the white woman according to Lugones and by the end of the film, Rae is being married off, dressed in white, bound by a symbolic chain to serve her new husband who is importantly white(Black Snake Moan 1:47:28-1:47:35). Rae also shares with the black women in the film an attraction to black men. This is what causes her to suffer the most socially, what brings the most ire from her boyfriend and acquaintance/ lover Gill, the final similarity she abandons before her transformation is complete. She has been cured of the illness that made her appear like and act as the black female characters, who are all similar to Lugones’s description of the colonized woman as “female-beasts-not-civilized-women” (Lugones 753). This ending, according to the camera, is an unambiguously heartwarming one.
It is outside the scope of this paper to determine whether these disturbingly colonial implications and seeming affirmation of oppression are prescriptive moralizings, or the unfortunate accidental implication of what was intended as a simply unlikely love story. However, I’ve shown that, regardless, the choices in race and gender hold a potent and disturbing message. Regardless of the somewhat false advertising, the film keeps its promise of being provocative.
“Black Snake Moan.” IMDb. IMDb.com, March 2, 2007. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0462200/.
Black Snake Moan. Netflix , 2019.
Lugones, Maria. “Towards a decolonial feminism .” In Hypatia, 4th ed., 25:742–59. Hypatia, Inc, 2010.
Young, Iris Marion. Justice and the politics of difference. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Pr., 1990.