Directed / Written by Gerard Bush & Christopher Renz.
Starring Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone, Eric Lange, Tongayi Chirisa, Jack Huston, Kiersey Clemons, T.C. Matherne, Robert Aramayo, Marque Richardson, Gabourey Sidibe, & London Boyce.
Lionsgate / QC Entertainment
Rated R / 105 minutes
Horror / Mystery / Thriller
★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)
DISCLAIMER: The following article contains MAJOR SPOILERS! You’ve been warned.
I’m a white queer male, so my opinions on a film that intricately involves slavery only go so far. I try to defer to Black critics in these cases. That being said, Antebellum remains a disappointing film for me because within it is a premise and story that has good meat on its bones. Sadly it never translates to the screen. It feels loosely inspired by Octavia Butler’s Kindred, and partly like a remake of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village with an American Civil War-inspired storyline nobody wanted.
The film involves Victoria / Eden (Janelle Monáe). Victoria’s a writer in the 21st century. She’s also, at some point, Eden— a woman living the existence of a slave in the Antebellum South. She tries to escape but can never seem to get away. But what’s really going on?
How can Victoria end this horrifying reality?
Antebellum suffers for a number of reasons. The biggest is it’s effectively a spectacle of Black pain. I hate the term ‘torture porn’ though I understand its connotations, but this film is exactly that, and entirely centred on Black bodies. Antebellum is more focused on surface level shock value than it is exploring the consequences and effects of the Black pain in which it revels. There’s much to mine out of the screenplay’s social commentary, though the exciting and interesting themes are ultimately dampened by otherwise baffling writing choices and poor execution.
Part of what’s compelling is the main reason why Antebellum reminds me of Butler’s novel Kindred, in that the novel explored what it would mean for a Black woman from the 20th century to be taken back to a time of slavery. That’s a big part of Veronica’s dilemma, going from a time of freedom to one where she was sold like property and eventually branded like livestock. I thought the smart parts of the film evoked all the hideous microaggressions Black people deal with daily from white people. Like when Elizabeth (Jenna Malone) tells Veronica she was “so articulate,” the implication being it’s surprising a Black woman could possibly be articulate. Because we see Veronica deal with these types of things, and also get thrust back to the Antebellum era, we’re able to trace the history of racism: slavery might’ve stopped in America, but its DNA has weaved its way into everyday life for Black Americans.
Two small yet troublesome things in Antebellum may seem insignificant to others. I can’t not mention them. First, the framed photograph Victoria has on her wall of Barack Obama in Egypt is an interesting shot to include. Again, I’m white, and just because I’m queer doesn’t mean I’m immune to white ignorance. I understand what Obama meant / means to many in the Black community. However, while Barack means a great deal to many Black Americans, he’s just another imperialist U.S. President who ordered the drone bombing of countless Arabs and Muslims. What means freedom for some continues to mean oppression for others.
Secondly— I already feel the rolling of eyes— is the odd use of drag-speak. For a film that’s entirely social commentary, it’s strange to me that the screenplay evokes queer language when there are no identifiable queer characters. Dawn shows up spouting “hunty” and “good mornting“— Black queer language. I’m not ‘offended’ by this, it’s just strange, and it only makes Dawn feel like a caricature instead of, y’know, a genuine person. She sounds like a 25-year-old white girl who just started binging seasons of RuPaul’s Drag Race on Netflix. Plus, the first drag queen was a former slave! Feels like a missed opportunity somewhere along the way.
“This land was always ours”
The best parts of Antebellum? They’re a strong critique of Trump’s America and the desires of white nationalism to return to a glory day when Black people weren’t out protesting human rights abuses by the police. The whole Civil War reenactment park is an image of what Trump and his supporters want: they’d like to return to an America that subjugated Black people and made them subservient to whites.
One of the smartest scenes is when Victoria gets abducted by Elizabeth and Jasper (Jack Huston). The Normal’s “Warm Leatherette” plays in the car and it works perfectly as a symbol of white nationalism’s desire to return to ‘the good old days.’ Grace Jones famously covered “Warm Leatherette” and it’s excellent, maybe even better than the original. Similar to the way white nationalists pine for when things were supposedly better, only if you were white, Elizabeth strikes me as the type who’d shun a Black woman’s cover of a song in favour of the original. A tiny detail that, to me, speaks volumes in connection with the story’s themes.
The issue with all the important themes is they never come together as a strong whole. The Black people abducted and kept as slaves are never more than cardboard cutouts of recognisable characters from other stories about slavery. The parallel of Victoria’s 21st century life versus the Antebellum South existence she experiences on the plantation never amounts to much, and it’s never utilised in the genius way Butler’s Kindred makes use of the same premise. We see glimpses of her life outside the plantation, but those don’t add much, if anything, to the overall story. What we essentially get is a neo-slave narrative that never actually progresses beyond the formula of the originals, leaving us with a whole lot of Black pain that feels like exploitative scenery and setting instead of character development.
There’s so much that could’ve been better about Antebellum. I try not to rag on what I don’t like about a film unless it’s constructive criticism, because I never like to criticise simply for the sake of being critical; to each their own when it comes to film critique. There are exciting, relevant themes at play in the film that only fail under the weight of everything else feeling confused and aimless. Monáe is easily the saving grace here. She’s a fantastic lead and carries the film with a heavy emotional performance.
There are enough slavery films out there, and some of those don’t seem to revel in the torture of Black bodies like this one does. I hate to keep bringing it up, yet can’t help feeling it would’ve been better for the filmmakers to try buying the rights to Butler’s Kindred— so many similar themes, but the screenplay doesn’t dive into them fully enough to make any sort of statement apart from the obvious suggestions. Antebellum suffers from its insistence on exploiting Black pain and an underwritten story that feels confused about what it’s truly trying to say.