Antebellum is not the movie you think it is. Antebellum is not the movie that it has been promoted to be. That is not a bad thing, just statements of fact about a film that has surprises heaped atop a narrative that explores the lasting impact of slavery on black people in the present, the ridiculous and chilling fascination with the Civil War era, and the deep-rooted fear successful white people have of black people on the rise. It does this, not with insights bundled in the sharp humor of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, but through an unflinching look at slavery’s cruelty, as if that alone were enough to resonate.
This was the first time I can remember where the movie’s directors, in this case up ‘n comers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, begin by explaining what they were trying to accomplish…
“We made this film because we had not seen movies that dealt with slavery through the prism of horror.”
I would disagree. Practically every movie about slavery is horror, in its own way. Antebellum, for all of its style and panache, says little about race as it is today, despite the ideas that tease something more substantial.
Bush and Renz are a talented pair, however, and Antebellum is never dull. The opening sequence, a continuous shot sweeping through a darkened plantation, grows with intensity as an operatic score swells to a malevolent finale. Signs of captivity are everywhere, finally settling on a female slave trying to make her escape. A noose comes flying towards her, and grips her around the neck while another slave, a possible lover, screams in anguish while in the chained grip of his captors.
Into the scenario we’re also introduced to Eden, played by Janelle Monae in another fiery performance akin to her role in last year’s Harriet. Eden is a veteran on the plantation, but she’s not settled on it as her home. She has designs on escape, and the other slaves (one played by Kiersey Clemons) turn to her for help. There are others who make Eden’s life as inhuman as possible: Jack Huston plays a violent Confederate officer who jumps at every chance to punish, while Jena Malone is the plantation owner’s scheming wife. Heaven help any of the female slaves who might catch the eye of her husband. The men here, all of them, relish in the brutality they can inflict on black bodies; physically, sexually, emotionally. They are the sort of villainous caricatures of southerners that make us root for someone to exact vengeance. Within the first few minutes of the film, we see women hanged, shot, and branded with a hot iron. It only gets worse from there.
There’s a second story unfolding, a contemporary one, that we’re blinked into out of nowhere. Monae also stars as Veronica Henley, a renowned sociologist and author who debates white men on TV about race relations. Saying goodbye to her husband and daughter, Veronica heads to a conference held at a ritzy 4-star hotel, but something about it isn’t right. Something is “off”, she says. The staff is dismissive to her, there’s a mysterious child “shushing” her in the hallway. Her friends Dawn and Sarah (Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles) don’t see it, and in the case of Sarah, who is white, she’s been treated the same as always.
This secondary story introduces the movie’s first major twist, and it won’t be spoiled here. Suffice it to say, the Civil War storyline connects with the contemporary in a way that isn’t obvious right away, but when revealed it lacks any lasting impact. At a time when the world is in the grip of protests inspired by racial injustice and police violent against black people, Antebellum presents itself as a movie that will speak to those issues. However, Bush and Renz, who also wrote the screenplay, aren’t interested in that conversation for very long. Nor do the parallel storylines converge in a satisfying way.
Taken individually, the Civil War-era stuff shows the filmmakers to have a real sense of flair, in particular when Eden begins to fight back against her captors. The sight of a black woman on horseback, galloping towards freedom against a full moon’s light holds incredible power, and Monae finds herself in a number of images that can make the heart swell. While their background is in music videos, Renz and Bush show themselves to also be of the Tarantino school of revisionist history, with Antebellum morphing into what can best be described as a wicked stepsister of Django Unchained, which only makes the present-day material so irrelevant as to be unnecessary altogether.