Deciding whether or not this much-maligned horror film deserves all the hate that it’s getting.
There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the release of the recent horror/thriller Antebellum. Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, the movie tells the story of a woman (Janelle Monae) living parallel lives as a slave on a southern plantation and a successful author in modern times. When the first trailers were released, hints of a supernatural examination into the race struggles which linked the separate times seemed like a sure bet. Then Covid happened and in the midst of the pandemic, a huge social uprising against racial injustice came about. The change in times changed Antebellum and what might have been a film admired by some and dismissed by others has become one that’s been taken to task by many critics and audience members for it’s hollow approach and overall uninterested attitude when it comes to fully engaging with its subject matter.
In an effort to track what went wrong with Antebellum, please enjoy my act by act breakdown.
The first act of Antebellum opens in quite elaborate fashion as a long shot travels throughout a typical southern plantation seeing the normal everyday life that exists there before culminating in the brutal death of a slave. There’s a chilling quality to the whole sequence as we see the serene nature of the people who own the plantation juxtaposed with the horrendous quality of life the slaves must endure. Having all of it captured in one single shot sets the tone for the kind of film Antebellum should have been, but wasn’t. The opening moments present a great depiction, but offer no other context whatsoever. Maybe in an effort to add some insights, a few more harrowing elements are inserted. But they come off as exploitative more than anything else. One scene in particular shows a new slave miscarrying while picking cotton in a moment which screams shock value and nothing more. It’s understandable that the filmmakers needed to maintain a certain amount of ambiguity to protect the movie’s secrets (which was all but ruined thanks to the trailer), but the way it presents the lives of slaves on a southern plantation on such a surface level, is unforgivable in ways which extend beyond simple filmmaking terms.
Hopes for the second act are strong and things actually start off rather well with the establishing of the movie’s heroine as a prominent 21st century author whose made her name in the field of African American studies; at least that’s what we are meant to gather. Besides some ham-fisted dialogue during a lecture, there’s not much done to paint the central character played by Monae (whose name I suspect was Veronica) as anything more than a collection of traits her movie-making creators imagine their ideal black woman to possess. It’s a real shame that we are never given an actual person to go on this journey with and that not many of the lingering questions we had from the first act are ever answered. What makes this especially tragic is that the only storytelling element in Antebellum worthy of praise happens during this section. A number of scenes do a good job at showing the modern tensions many people of color face from the everyday society and how they are continuously judged and grouped together, regardless of any social standing or polish. The moment in which Veronica tries to make dinner reservations through the white concierge who brushes her off when the front desk phone rings more or less adequately sums this up.
With the second act over and done (along with the promise that anything meaningful will actually be said with this film), Antebellum becomes an action-driven revenge movie with Monae doing her best Charles Bronson interpretation as she proceeds to overtake the bad guys. At this point, one can only assume that the minds behind the movie knew they had run out of steam in terms of trying to make a point and that their only chance at salvaging whatever audience goodwill they’d hoped to get was through action pieces. It doesn’t work as even the action itself is rather unspectacular and amounts to nothing more than an extended wrap-up that offers nothing in the way of clarification or resolution. Even when the modern world spills over into the past, shattering it, there’s no moment of discussion or condemnation whatsoever. My only guess is that the makers of Antebellum had hoped folks would be horrified by what had transpired during the last three acts, they’d be left stunned and speechless. To be fair, they might have gotten away with it 20 years ago. But in a post-Get Out world, people want more than just a terrifying illustration.
It’s not all bad, I suppose. Monae does what little she can with her “character” and once again proves she’s got incredible screen presence. Antebellum’s production design is impeccable, its cinematography striking, the score is actually amazing and the aforementioned opening shot is admittedly impressive. But even those collective plusses don’t make this the film what everyone was needing it to be. Other than Get Out, you could look back to The People Under the Stairs, that Wes Craven-written/directed early 90s horror film which boldly and creatively explored similar themes set against the backdrop of Bush #41’s America. There’s simply no excuse for the fact that Craven made a more telling film back then than these directors do in 2020. This is the era of BLM where issues of racial violence must be brought to the forefront and openly discussed from every angle possible. Either Antebellum isn’t ready to have that conversation, or it simply has nothing to say.