To say I was hoping Antebellum it would be exaggerated.
I left the movies about slavery a long time ago. Being subjected to prolonged scenes of torture, murder and rape of blacks does not appeal to me. The cameras linger unsuccessfully for too long on misery and degradation, turning from retelling to discarded, sadistic voyeurism.
Despite the good intentions of writers / directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, Antebellum it is no different.
The opening scene could easily be a metaphor for the film itself – everything looks good on the surface, but stick to it, you’ll see it’s a hot, messy mess. With a sweeping single shot, we float through a spacious Louisiana plantation. A white girl in a yellow dress jumps towards the Great House while her mistress (Jena Malone) descends the outside stairs in a dress from a southern belle. Confederate soldiers cross the field. The camera loosely follows the soldiers as they pass the slaves at work – they hang their laundry, pitch their tent – until we reach the gloomy slave rooms, where the captured slave Eden (Janelle Monáe) is pulled from her horse.
Here, in the shadow of a finely lacquered facade, we find real horror. Black slave slaves fight under duress. The man is in an iron collar, and the woman is overwhelmed with sadness as she tries to reach him. Confederate soldiers separate them. What follows is a slow killing that results in the black body being dragged in and dragged behind the horse.
Who in their right mind thought we needed racial terror on screen right now? Who thought we needed this at all?
And the film, like the plantation, has all the romanticized veneer, but behind the curtain is the hasty construction of the world. Cinematography and overall production value are decadent. The result of the opening is covered with wires that signal the impending doom. All this brilliance does not compensate for Antebellum’s wrong steps. If Bush and Renz spent so much time developing characters and stories as well as carefully crafted reconstructions, wardrobe, and panoramic landscapes from the Confederate era, this could be a better film.
One, of course, must be punished for attempting to escape. That punishment lingers in something that could be a scene of horrific torture that you would pay per minute to watch online, and that’s the problem. A better part of this film could be drawn from the plan for the world the Klan wants to build. Violence against blacks is relentless and relentless. The directors invite the viewer to be an accomplice in this violence. He feels dirty, punished and embarrassed.
At best, Monáe’s performance is capable. I love capable actresses, but I’d rather see them in supporting roles. Monáe has leveled a crumb from previous performances – but only a crumb. Still, I can’t hate her for her aspiration.
In the time jump, we meet Dr. Veronica Henley (also Monáe), an expert in black race theory with degrees from Spelman College and Columbia. He appears in national shows as a “joint” black scholar who spreads untruths about race in America. She is the cover of a live conversation where a black audience jumps to their feet to cheer her on. The house in her Washington, DC, is Bougie AF, and her family is almost perfect. Her husband makes pancakes and prepares their daughter for school, while Veronica watches the national news show. Yet Veronica’s achievement bosses don’t protect her from the same insidious racism that Eden experiences.
Bush and Renz would like us to believe that this film is about a black heroine who is smart and determined – a super woman who is fighting for liberation, no matter what the odds. Ironically, most of the narratives enjoy the subjugation of a black heroine. Regardless of the expected payment, it can in no way counteract the damage caused. Blacks are burned, hanged, stabbed, shot, whipped, punished, silenced, kidnapped, deprived of, raped, emotionally tortured and branded.
I wonder who this film should serve? The American longing for the traps of the southern antebellum is not new to blacks. Veronica Henley is no safer than Eden in America – because racism, spirit. Blacks are well aware. We see it and we live it every day. Obviously we’re not an audience – they don’t even consider us – but somehow should this film move the conversation forward?
That’s a bald lie.
There are so many good narratives that blacks have written about black struggles that don’t make it to the screen, but every year some lukewarm slave film does it. I’m sure Bush and Renz think their work sheds new light on a cruel American institution. On the contrary, Antebellum it serves all standard slavery prices, and a strong black pencil spends most of the film beaten, belittled, and traumatized. Save yourself.
Antebellum. Starring Janelle Monáe, Tongayi Chirisa, Eric Lange, Jena Malone and Jack Huston. Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. Rated R. 105 minutes. Streaming now on demand.