Not Afraid of the Dark
Saturday, March 3, 2007
Craig Brewer wants to go on the record right now: "I am not a misogynist. I cannot have a hatred towards women."
Brewer is sitting in a Washington hotel room on a snowy February day, coughing occasionally into a bright red bandanna; he's just getting over a nasty case of bronchitis that he picked up at the Sundance Film Festival, where his second theatrical film, "Black Snake Moan," made its premiere to a mostly ecstatic audience -- not counting the ones who walked out. It was a homecoming of sorts for the 35-year-old filmmaker, who just two years ago made a sensational debut at the festival with "Hustle & Flow," starring Terrence Howard as a pimp-turned-rapper.
"Hustle & Flow" was nominated for two Oscars and won one, for the improbably titled song "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." But for all its cult and critical success -- and surprise that such an intimate portrait of Memphis's black community was created by a white guy-- it was greeted with consternation by some observers. Many took issue with its valorization of thug life and casual acceptance -- even celebration -- of its male characters' bitches-and-hos vernacular. The cultural critic Stanley Crouch, writing in the New York Daily News, called the film "popular culture at its most irresponsible and dehumanizing," adding, "[Its] condescension toward black people and women is astounding."
With "Black Snake Moan," which opened yesterday, Brewer seems to be putting himself smack dab back into the cross hairs. The film stars Christina Ricci as a sexually compulsive young woman in rural Mississippi, whose boyfriend (Justin Timberlake) leaves for boot camp; disconsolate, she spends a night drinking, drugging and having indiscriminate sex, finally being found beaten and passed out by a black truck farmer (Samuel L. Jackson). He takes her home and, in a fit of Old Testament fury, decides to cure her of her "wickedness" by chaining her to a radiator.
With a marketing campaign dominated by the film's most provocative images, and Ricci parading through most of the movie in a cut-off T-shirt and bikini briefs, the sexuality of "Black Snake Moan" is played for maximum fetishistic frisson. At one point Ricci's character seduces a boy like a libidinous she-monster; later, she bumps and grinds to titillating excess while Jackson plays slide guitar. Their curious friendship simultaneously references and upends the troubled history of black men and white women in the South, just as it both comments on and exploits lurid S&M imagery.
Let it be said: Brewer isn't a dirty old man. He doesn't even appear to be a dirty young man. Sensitive and literate (he mentions Flannery O'Connor within three minutes of meeting a visitor), he doesn't come off as some Tarantino wannabe, spoiling for a fight. So just what's he trying to prove?
"I really just wanted to make a movie about a white trash girl and a bluesman," he says simply.
If that sounds suspiciously like the condescension he was accused of last time, Brewer insists that he's earned the right, despite being a product of a liberal, middle-class upbringing in Chicago, Northern California and Orange County. (He recalls campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment with his mother, an English and drama teacher, in Berkeley.) Both sides of his family come from Tennessee, where he spent idyllic childhood summers.
He was 12 when an aunt took him to Beale Street in Memphis, where he bought Muddy Waters's "Hard Again" and Sonny Boy Williamson's "Bring It On Home." The die was cast. Stone in love with the blues, he couldn't get "back home" fast enough, and in 1994, after writing and directing plays in Berkeley and attending San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater, Brewer and his now-wife, Jodi, moved to Memphis.
"And then," Brewer recalls, "Memphis kind of swallowed us up." The couple plunged headlong into the city's most pungent netherworld; his wife began waiting tables in a strip club and eventually became a dancer there, while he worked at a Barnes & Noble, nursing an ambition to make "the great American movie."
Brewer and his wife became friends "with strippers and bouncers and drug dealers and car thieves," he recalls. "And not only that, but they wanted to help me make a movie. And they didn't want to help me make a stupid movie, they wanted to help me make a movie about them ." Having tried and failed -- expensively -- to make some movies on 16mm film, Brewer wrote a new script called "The Poor and Hungry," shot it on video with the help of his unconventional band of friends and supporters (and a modest inheritance from his father, who had recently died), and submitted it to the Hollywood Film Festival.
The film drew the attention of producer Stephanie Allain, who read his next script, "Hustle & Flow," and, as she recalls, "fell in love with it." While Allain was seeking financing for that project, Brewer wrote "Black Snake Moan." The title came from an old blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson and the name Brewer and his wife gave the anxiety attacks that he had begun suffering. He'd quit his job, and the couple had just had a baby (their son, Graham, is now 5). "There was just this constant stress that it was all going to fall apart," he recalls, "and not only would my movie not get made, but my entire community would think I was some kind of joke or fraud."