This movie has had the opportunity to show a more dynamic side to the slavery narratives, but it ends up reaffirming the very horror it tries to criticize.
Photo: Universal Pictures
I am tired. I’m tired of the pop-cultural artifacts that turn blacks into mere black bodies upon which the sins of this ragged country are fiercely mapped. I am tired of suffering as the main lens through which we understand black identity. I’m tired of being so hungry for black joy and black representation that the leftovers look like a meal. I’m tired of slavery films refusing to recognize the inner lives of black women even as their beings become tools for filmmakers to explore the horrors of slaves. I’m tired of the thin characterization and milquetoast social posts being the kind of portrayal blacks get. I’m tired of movies like Antebellum.
Writer-director duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s debut feature is apparently ready with a demeanor too serious to cause a calculation. Especially if you ask its directors, who in an intro leading up to the version of their movie I watched chatted about their lofty goal of activating a conversation that’s from and for this moment. Instead, Antebellum reaffirms the very horror he tries to criticize.
Beginning with the ostentatious opening tracking shot winding through the plantation lands, noting the hard work of black people on the land and the Confederate white soldiers watching their every move, we are immersed in a world both strange and painfully familiar. A world of plucked cotton and occasional cruelty, primitive southern rituals and unfettered brutality. But there is something wrong with the plantation on which Eden (Janelle Mone) is violently abused and from which she continually tries to escape. The first clue that things are far from what they seem is the appearance of a glittering golden septum in the light on the face of another enslaved woman as she vainly attempts to break free and is unceremoniously killed. for that.
But before you learn anything about the reality of Eden, before you even know it real name, we are witnessing deep violence against her, first in a heartbreaking scene in which she scored. After 40 minutes of relentless torture in a pre-war dress, the film turns on its axis. Mone is reintroduced as Veronica Henley, a famous writer and activist of considerable wealth, with an adorable husband and young daughter. Here we get more details about her lavish home than the actual characters who live there with her, the camera pans through the luxurious interior, and photographs of Veronica participating in horse jumping events (a subtle gesture for which will happen in the third act). At one point in this contemporary setting, Veronica tells a friend, Ma chick used to say that our ancestors haunt our dreams to see each other ahead. The line suggests a multitude of fantastic paths for Antebellum. Does this story sound like something from Octavia Butlers Kinship? Is the Mone we have seen before the fruit of the memories of distant relatives of Veronicas? Is there something supernatural going on? No, the filmmakers rather choose a more banal explanation. His connection to the plantation we witness in the film’s first act is less imaginative than this slippage of dialogue suggests.
Antebellum ends up being a noxious tour of historic violence against blacks in the service of a story that has nothing new to say about the obliterating function of whiteness and anti-black racism. For lack of a strong point of view to grant interiority to his characters, his approach to horror and social commentary falls asleep. In terms of craftsmanship, Antebellum assuming beauty the film’s obsession with portraying the magic hour in all its sherbet-hued glory is inherently meaningful. As a result, the world-building is slapdash, mistaking obscuration for intrigue. Antebellum is an artistic failure of two directors whose goals outweigh their ability to achieve them, with not only aesthetic and narrative, but also moral failures: he implicitly maintains that representations of suffering are the best way to understand what means to be black in America.
In the wake of Jordan Peeles’ success with his first two exploratory films Get out and the seductive but messy We Hollywood realized that horror was a great place to carve the grooves of black identity and the melodious, vibrant experience of what it means to be black throughout the diaspora. There are overworked Misha Greens Lovecraft Country currently airing on HBO, as well as Justin Simiens Bad hair and Nia Dacostas reinvents the upcoming classic Tony Todd from the 1990s Candyman. The genre, at its best, allows us to explore cultural taboos and fears with unvarnished eagerness. I still think it’s possible to make a horror film that explores slavery in the history of this country, but it requires a steady hand, a strong point of view, and an even stronger sense of history. none of which is demonstrated in Antebellum. It’s hard to create tension when the characters are so poorly drawn and the world they inhabit has little internal logic. Sure, there are few moments of tension, but they quickly die out thanks to the inert dialogue and silliness of the story (which I can’t get into without spoiling the majority of the plot).
Whites in particular are rendered as caricatures that appear to receive an erotic charge of the violence they inflict, including Jack Huston as the ogling Hugo Meadows, a high-class Confederate soldier who oversees the plantation, which does is not necessarily a wrong approach. executed, flattening rather than revealing anything about the nature of whiteness and its emptiness in America. Whiteness is an oft-told lie that fuels much of the world, but Antebellum is neither cunning enough nor intellectually ambitious enough to explain such a truth. Whites therefore have no internal logic, no gravity. They don’t evoke overwhelming fear or hatred, most of the time just boredom, with the exception of Jena Malone, who is closest to finding the deal needed by bringing the toxicity of white women to the fore. But his performance is canceled by the strange dishonesty of the film the N-word is never spoken, for example.
The idea of doing a slave narrative, even wrapped in a twist that puts a black woman in the foreground, is a risky proposition, given that films from the period of slavery rarely allow the inner lives of their men. characters to rise above the physical and psychological pain they endure. Who is even Veronica? When we see her onstage at a public appearance in New Orleans, looking at the beaming faces of so many black women, she speaks in empty, progressive platitudes that make it hard to understand the work she is doing. actually does. (I’ve lost count of how many times she used the word patriarchy in her sentences.) A strange class understanding weaves its way through the story, too; it is as if the filmmakers draw a line between the worth of a modern black person and the intellectual / financial class in which they live. (One of the most significant deaths in the film is that of a character who is only called a professor, but doesn’t have any defining characteristics beyond that.)
The effect is totally distancing. It’s worth exploring the pain and courage of moving through America while being Black, but that exploration shouldn’t come at the expense of the characters’ humanity. Janelle Mone is totally wrong; she has been charming in supporting roles like that Moonlight, but here she doesn’t have the gravity and precision to make Veronica feel so real that you think you can touch and touch her. But I can’t fault him for not bringing to life what clearly wasn’t on the page. Antebellum is ultimately a parody of craft and film with a perspective that hollows out the black experience in favor of pale horror.