Antebellum is a movie built on a good intentions, and yet it frequently talks down to its audience in an infuriatingly smug manner. It’s a movie built around a single big reveal that’s meant to impress upon you a reality that you’re probably already aware of. The film wants to stress that America’s original sin of the slavery remains with us, but puts so much emphasis on a big reveal that it misses both the human stakes and our present miseries with regards to racial injustice. The cruelest cut of all in Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’ Antebellum is that in its recreation of life on slave plantations, it ends up ignoring the banal evils of our racist present.
Eden (Janelle Monáe) works on a slave plantation in the antebellum South. The rules are strict and cruel, and the slaves are ordered to be silent by their white overseers. However, there’s something a bit off about this setting in terms of the dialects and confusion of some new arrivals like Julia (Kiersey Clemons). In the second act we then move to meeting Veronica Henley (also Monáe), an esteemed Doctor of History who is headed to a conference to talk about her latest book. We’re then left to wonder how the two settings are connected.
I won’t spoil the twist of Antebellum because that’s all the movie has going for it. The entire film is constructed around a single reveal, and that reveal is meant to hammer home that America is not only as racist as it was during the antebellum South, but also that white supremacists long for having dominion over black bodies. Bush and Renz’ script strains to make this fairly obvious point about the evils of slavery while missing that slavery never really went away. It’s baffling to watch a movie like Antebellum position slavery as some distant thing when our history and the 13th amendment shows that slavery simply transformed into segregation and Jim Crow before transforming again into mass incarceration. When you position slavery as not only America’s original sin but also it’s only sin, you miss the reach of America’s racial caste system.
To its credit, Antebellum tries to convey that meaning in the present with Veronica dealing with microaggressions like rude concierges, but there’s a much larger picture that gets missed in favor of building the mystery and the all-important twist. On the one hand, I can respect what Bush and Renz are aiming to do by linking slavery to our present, but they’ve done it in such a clumsy manner that Antebellum lacks almost any impact. When your mind is busy trying to connect the circumstances of Eden and Veronica, you become concerned with the “how” of the thing rather than the thematic subtext the filmmakers are trying to convey.
The film also isn’t helped by the fact that outside of Eden/Veronica, no one really gets to be a person. There’s very little characterization to the other black characters, and the white supremacist characters are all cartoonish versions of Southern racists. I’m not saying you need to humanize them or sympathize with them, but they need to be recognized as part of America’s DNA and as part of our current systemic inequities. They’re the nice white liberals who don’t want to integrate their schools, not confederate soldiers on horseback sounding like Gone with the Wind cosplayers. The problems we face are insidious and ever-present, and casting them in a fantastical mold is difficult, but that’s why we need storytellers who rise to this occasion rather than handing us a ham-fisted metaphor and calling it a day.
I like that Bush and Renz are working to call awareness to the present evils of slavery and how modern society overlooks or even attempts to romanticize that evil, but the story they’ve fashioned to create that awareness falls flat due to its poor plotting and overreliance on a big reveal. Bush and Renz are talented directors who know how to craft handsome and haunting visuals, but here it only adds up to a simplistic critique that never grapples with the broken systems that harm Black people.
Antebellum arrives on VOD on September 18th.