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While white southern men were allowed to freely indulge their sexual passions first with their female slaves
and then with their maids and employees, black men and to a lesser extent white women were expected
to keep their sexual desire in check.
Black Snake Moan: Passion in the Southland
Film Review by Amin Sharif
I have always been an admirer of Samuel Jackson. His role as the crack addicted son in New Jack City was compelling and gritty. His other films have been entertaining and always show flashes of brilliance and depth. Yet recently, the only thing people think about when they think of Jackson is his portrayal of an FBI agent in the infamous Snakes on a Plane. But Jackson roles in lesser known films such as Freedomland and Black Snake Moan show the kind of breadth that will undoubtedly leave the serious film fan wanting more. And, in a period where many African-Americans are watching the latest gang banger, action or superficial comedy, Jacksons work is remarkably intelligent and emotionally gratifying.
In John Singletons Black Snake Moan, Jackson plays an ex-blues singer named Lazarus whose wife, Rose, has left him for another man. Lazarus states later in the film that Rose went to visit her family and came back a changed woman. The light that a man sees in his woman was gone when she returned Lazarus explains. Light referred to here is the illusive love light, sung about in many African American ballads.
Singleton set as a counterpoint to Lazaruss tale, the story of a young white woman named Rae who is afflicted with uncontrollable sexual passion. But what we are introduced to here is not your garden variety nymphomania. Rae was molested by her father. And it is clear from the context in which Singleton places her in the film that her passion is but a substitute for the consuming guilt that anyone would feel when placed in such a compromising situation. When Rae is beaten and pushed out of the truck of one her boyfriends associates, it is Lazarus who finds her abandoned on the road. And it is he who takes her in and attempts to cure her of her affliction.
Now, anyone who knows anything about the blues knows Black Snake Moan is a song authored by the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson. One of its lyrics goes as follows:
black snake crawlin in my room
black snake crawlin in my room
some pretty moma better come
and get this black snake soon
Clearly, Black Snake Moan was written as a tribute to the mythical phallic power that is supposedly possessed by the African-American male. No one has a greater understanding of this phallic power than Jackson who was chosen to play the title role in the re-make of Shaft. But as Singleton points out in his film, the phallic power of the African-American male can be at times more a curse than a blessing. As a black man who has lost his woman, Lazarus represents the residing sexual power of the black man.
Singleton has exchanged the virility that is associated with black male superstars in most black films for that of an elderly black man. Jacksons character is balding and grey haired. To re-enforce, the theme of black male sexuality specifically and sexuality in general, Singleton uses a unique devise of interposing historical film clips of actual blues singers commenting on the age old problem of men and women deceiving each other while in love within the film.
Though this device is not as effective as one would think, it does stand as a reminder as to what the film is about. Most probably, this device was introduced as a way of connecting younger less knowledgeable members of his audience to blues culture. And, perhaps this device is necessary when one considers how far away from slavery and segregation the present generation stands today.
Black Snake Moan is a film filled with subtle and not so subtle allusions not just to sexuality but the way in which sexual passion evidenced itself in the South. While white southern men were allowed to freely indulge their sexual passions first with their female slaves and then with their maids and employees, black men and to a lesser extent white women were expected to keep their sexual desire in check. When the film Cat on a Hot Tin Roof came out, the reigning Hollywood sex symbol, Elizabeth Taylor, was cast in the principal female role as the (sexually) frustrated wife of her immature husband played brilliantly by Paul Newman. This theme of white female frustration had appeared earlier in American plays and the films such as Mourning Becomes Electra by Eugene ONeil.
Of course, the repression of both black male and white female passion is borne of fear. While there is no need to go into a Freudian dissertation on the role sexual frustration plays in European and Euro-American societies, Singleton makes the point that others residing within America might also come under its sway. Singleton makes Lazarus place chains upon the body of Rae when he becomes aware of her sexual power. And she stays in chains for nearly two-thirds of the film.
Here, we are presented with an almost magical realist portrayal of Rae. Those who have seen Like Water for Chocolate, a magical realist film, are aware of the scene where a frustrated woman burns down a house while taking a shower. Magical Realist literature has from its conception been used as an effective tool against racism and sexism, as well as neo-colonialism. And this brief but effective allusion to this literary devise certainly plays well in this film. But even before Eugene ONeil, Greek playwrights such as Euripides noted the alleged destructive power of woman in plays such as Medea.
Yet it is exactly as a counterbalance to all efforts of white men to restrain black male sexuality that the itinerant blues man emerges. Under the cover of the blues, the power of the black phallus is set free figuratively and physically whenever the blues man enters the juke house or joint. (Even the very words, juke and joint have at time stood as euphemisms for both the sex act and the male sexual organ.)
It is especially when the blues man evokes the deep blues with its earthy lyrics of love and defiance of social norms that he is at his most powerful. And it is at the very moment when Lazarus descends into despair that he takes up his guitar again. It is as though by just touching the strings of his old guitar that he is made whole again. As a sign of his rebirth as a liberated man, Lazarus unchains Rae and together they enter the juke which has been transformed into a kind of temple to Bacchus.
While Lazarus shouts out lyrics lanced with danger, an undertone of unrestrained physicality fills the joint as customers bump and grindRae is naturally among them. And, while the film moves on to predictably to a happy ending, its power and message is not lost on the more discriminating film fan.
Black Snake Moan is one of those films that always seem to exist below the radar. Such films are never hyped and are seen by only a small number of viewers. Why this is so escapes me. Still, if you want to see Jackson at his best, Black Snake Moan is your flick.
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The Black Snake Moan Interview
with Kam Williams
Sam Rises to the Occasion as Lazarus
With over 100 acting credits already on his resume, Samuel Leroy Jackson remains one of the hardest working thespians in Hollywood. Nominated for an Oscar in 1996 for Pulp Fiction, the versatile actor has tackled every genre of film over the course of his illustrious career.
Not one to be pigeonholed, hes handled a variety of roles, ranging from a drug addict to a gangster to a mailman to a cop to a soldier to a musician to a hobo to a coach to an alcoholic to a minister to a villain to a teacher to an arms dealer to a hostage negotiator to a Jedi master to a hero who saves his fellow passengers from snakes on a plane.
Here, he reflects on his latest outing as Lazarus opposite Christina Ricci in Black Snake Moan . Set in Memphis, and written and directed by Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), the picture revolves around the efforts of a born-again bluesman to exorcise the demons of the nearly-naked nymphomaniac he finds lying beaten and abandoned along the roadway.
KW: In your last film you said, I have had it with these bleeping snakes on this bleeping plane! Did you encounter any snakes while making this movie?
SLJ: Well, its the South, so theres snakes. I heard there were some around but, no, I didnt see em.
KW: How challenging was it to have to sing the blues for this role?
SLJ: Fortunately, Mississippi Delta Blues doesnt need a silky smooth, Luther Vandross-type voice. Its kinda more about making sure the emotion of what youre saying comes out than being a great singer.
KW: Were you already playing guitar before you took this role?
SLJ: I learned to play. It was one of the things that I spent the most time doing. I was lucky to have maybe six or seven months to work that out. I had a really good guitar teacher in the beginning, Felicia Collins, in New York, while I was shooting Freedomland. Then when I left to make Snakes on a Plane in Vancouver, the prop master was an awesome guitarist. He spent a lot of time with me in my trailer every day. It was something I did daily for months until I was comfortable doing it. And it actually became something I looked forward to doing, so by the time we got to the film, I was pretty facile. Id actually taught myself to play the songs.
KW: Do you think the way that Lazarus chooses to take Rae (Ricci) home and restrain her instead of taking her to a hospital was realistic, given the Souths history of overreacting to black men being with white women?
SLJ: Interestingly enough, I understand the choice, just because I understand the rural South, because I spent a lot of time in it when I was a kid. My grandfathers brothers were farmers. I spent time on the farm as a kid with them, walking through the fields, working, and hanging out. But there are instances when you find yourself in a circumstance. If you put her in your truck and take her to a hospital, there are a lot more questions than if you just keep her at your house and try to nurse her back to health. Hopefully, shell just walk away. That choice that he made of just keeping her there I mean, he was sort of out of his mind in another kind of way at that point. Hed lost this woman that he had no control over. And now, all of a sudden he has a woman and shes kinda out of control in that interesting, sort of immoral way that he pictured his wife. So, he wants to control Rae, and to fix her. And the only way he can think to do that is to put this chain on her, and still give her some amount of freedom while pumping this Biblical medicine into her.
KW: What was it like shooting so many scenes with a scantily-clad co-star?
SLJ: I guess after about an hour of looking at Christina in those little panties and that shirt, you kinda get over it, because that was what she had on every day. And she didnt put on a robe or anything between shots and hide herself. She kinda just hung out. So, you get over it pretty quickly. The great thing was that during the rehearsal period, Christina and I developed this really interesting bond and trust which kinda allowed her to go anywhere she wanted to, and I would support her in that to the point where, I guess as an actor, or as Samuel L. Jackson, I became another sort of Lazarus figure.
KW: What did Craig [director Craig Brewer] tell you about your character?
SLJ: [Chuckles] Actually, Craig didnt tell me anything about the guy. Once I got the script and read it, they went through all the machinations of Thats not who youre supposed to send the script to, and it was like, Okay, Ill go meet him, and whatever. Then Craig saw me on television talking about my life and decided, Oh, hes got enough layers in his life to be able to play this guy. Im an actor who shows up to rehearsal with a lotta stuff. I work out characters, and put together biographies and histories. So, by the time we got there and started rehearsing, it was very wise of him to just sit there and watch me and Christina kinda go through what we were going through and figuring out how our relationship worked as two people who had never encountered anyone like the other before. Shed never met anyone she couldnt manipulate sexually, and Id never met anybody with a sexual dysfunction like that. How many people know when theyve run into a real nymphomaniac or know exactly what it is or how to handle that? To him, she was just somebody who was possessed by a devil, or evil. And the only thing he knew to do was to exorcise it.
KW: So, what did you draw on in creating your character?
SLJ: To me, he seems to be an amalgam of my grandfather and his brothers, guys I worked with in the fields and talked to, people of the earth who drank hard when it was time to drink. And they loved the blues, and they sang, and told stories, and they did all this stuff. It was a nice way for me to pay homage to some men who developed me in a particular way which made me want to be a storyteller.
KW: How would you characterize Christinas performance?
SLJ: I think Christinas performance is one of the bravest performances
Ive seen by a younger actress. Im sure there are a lot of young women who probably wouldnt touch this thing. I saw maybe three or four different audition tapes, but like I said, we talk about sexual dysfunction and nymphomania, but we never see what that process is. And its interesting watching whatever that thing is, internally, that takes her over, and the way that she succumbs to it all the time. Rather than fight it, she lets it happen, not realizing that her power is in resisting it.
KW: Do you think some might see the movie as misogynistic?
SLJ: Titillating, yes. Misogynistic? I dont know. Its not often that you see a young actress in that state of undress for two-thirds of a film. Its kind of like early Helen Mirren in that regard. I used to like watching Helen Mirrens early films, because she was always naked. Its titillating.
KW: Finally, what did you think of Justin Timberlakes performance?
SLJ: It would have been easy for him to choose a role that allowed him to be more like himself. Young guys dont tend to want to portray people who have frailties or are less than macho. So, it was interesting for him to choose a character so opposite of what most women or guys would want their hero to be. And he wasnt afraid to do it. He stepped up and gave it his best shot, and it works for me in the film.
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For July 1st through August 31st 2011
#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane
#10 – Covenant: A Thriller by Brandon Massey
#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva by Ashley and JaQuavis
#12 – Don’t Ever Tell by Brandon Massey
#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide by Ntozake Shange
#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree
#15 – Homemade Loves by J. California Cooper
#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper
#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber
#18 – Purple Panties: An Eroticanoir.com Anthology by Sidney Molare
#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King
#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey
#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe
#22 Thug Matrimony by Wahida Clark
#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark
#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber
#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter
#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson
#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History by Ahati N. N. Toure
#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley
#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell
#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit by RM Johnson
#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins
#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell
#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle
#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard
#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris
#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice
#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields
#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class by Lisa B. Thompson
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A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family thats about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrinas inexorable winds is the voice of Wards narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her familys raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brothers blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt. Her fathers hands are like gravel, while her own hand slides through his grip like a wet fish, and a handsome boys muscles jabbered like chickens. Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isnt usually just metaphor for metaphors sake. She conveys something fundamental about Eschs fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, whats salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.WashingtonPost
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Wilderson, a professor, writer and filmmaker from the Midwest, presents a gripping account of his role in the downfall of South African apartheid as one of only two black Americans in the African National Congress (ANC). After marrying a South African law student, Wilderson reluctantly returns with her to South Africa in the early 1990s, where he teaches Johannesburg and Soweto students, and soon joins the military wing of the ANC. Wilderson’s stinging portrait of Nelson Mandela as a petulant elder eager to accommodate his white countrymen will jolt readers who’ve accepted the reverential treatment usually accorded him. After the assassination of Mandela’s rival, South African Communist Party leader Chris Hani, Mandela’s regime deems Wilderson’s public questions a threat to national security; soon, having lost his stomach for the cause, he returns to America. Wilderson has a distinct, powerful voice and a strong story that shuffles between the indignities of Johannesburg life and his early years in Minneapolis, the precocious child of academics who barely tolerate his emerging political consciousness. Wilderson’s observations about love within and across the color line and cultural divides are as provocative as his politics; despite some distracting digressions, this is a riveting memoir of apartheid’s last days.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 27 December 2011