Antebellum Review: Empty Gestures and Hollow History

When it comes to horror, what has happened throughout history to Black people is far worse than anything that has ever happened in any horror film. Antebellum exploits that true cruelty and uses it as a vehicle for more pain without any notion of commentary or nuance beyond the obvious.

The film starts with a long take, moving through a Southern plantation deep in the throes of the American Civil War. We wander, without edits, from the palatial estate to the slave barracks, to the tents where the Confederate army has put in their stakes. We also see a Black woman, assumed to be a slave, trying to make her escape. After this long, meandering shot we see our first cut to enter a slow, pained closeup of this woman as she is shot, begs for death, and then is dragged behind a horse back to the encampment.

This first taste of Antebellum is a microcosm of the film as a whole. Despite all of the negative things I am about to write here (in addition to all the negative things I shouted at my TV but will not commit to writing), the film is technically well executed. There are multiple instances of these long tracking shots, which are generally the way that showy directors get to display how much command they have over their films. However, Antebellum is not Touch of Evil nor The Player; not by a long shot. The costumes and art direction are well assembled. The performances are all quite good (including a scene stealing turn by Gabourey Sidibe and possibly some over-the-top villainess habitation by Jena Malone). But all of this functionality is trying its best, and failing, to prop up a film that seems to be aimed at just saying that bad people are bad and that racism is alive and well. This is not new or interesting, is it?

Antebellum proceeds then to show our central hero, Eden (Janelle Monáe) trying her best to survive slavery. She is raped, branded, beaten, and treated as less than human. The worst bits are hidden just off screen, saving us from seeing this gore and blood, but we get to instead focus on her face throughout these tortures. When another fresh batch of slaves arrives at their camp, she also does her best to coach Julia (Kiersey Clemons) to not fight too hard because it will only lead to more agony.

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Through a cinematic conceit that is not nearly as clever as Antebellum seems to think it is, we also get to see a contemporary view of Eden and her family. She is wealthy, powerful, and well-known for being outspoken about the bright future for Black people in America. We see multiple racist microaggressons, and it is assumed that we are supposed to take these as reminders that even though she is not being beaten regularly, racism is still alive and well. Duh.

Eventually the film does morph into a rape-revenge plot, but the satisfaction of her victory never eclipses the exploitation of her trials. As someone who enjoys, and often defends, the lower depths of horror cinema, I can say that this just feels lazy. Antebellum constantly punches down, and seems to mistake displaying racism as the same thing as criticising it. In the end, it seems to be a missed opportunity to create a nuanced argument about the state of the country and our violent past, and confused its technical prowess with being a quality film. It also wasted a performance by Monáe which must be criminal in certain countries.

Antebellum is cruel to both its characters and its audience, without any defensible elements. Let’s be better.

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