Race has been front and center in numerous films over the years, but presenting the specific cruelties of slavery on screen requires special attention from the filmmakers. The best films approach the ugliness with purpose. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013), for example, depicts atrocities in service of a story about resilience, hope, and the human spirit. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012) takes a more exploitative route that hardens viewers en route to a cathartic third act. Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968) softens it with a sci-fi twist but still employs it as a tool for social commentary. The new horror film Antebellum rubs viewers’ faces in the pain, misery, and abuses of slavery for a far less noble or intentional reason — namely, the film’s writers think they’re far smarter than they actually are.
Eden (Janelle Monáe) is a slave on a southern plantation during the Civil War. She serves the family (including Jena Malone and Jack Huston) during the day and is sexually assaulted by the commander (credited only as Him and played by Eric Lange). A recent escape attempt has left a friend and fellow slave murdered, and with new victims arriving every day Eden knows it’s a cycle of violence destined to continue. But then…
A pause here as what follows may be viewed as a spoiler by some, but as it’s not only the film’s official synopsis but also prominently displayed in all of the trailers — it’s fair game.
… a cell phone rings. Suddenly she’s Veronica Henley, a successful author in the present day, preparing for her latest book tour. While her husband and young daughter stay back at home, she hits the grind including an off-putting interview with a woman named Elizabeth (Malone). Implied racism, suspicious behaviors, and a brief appearance by a ghostly-looking little girl in sneakers follow, and the truth of it all isn’t far behind.
Writers/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz make one thing immediately clear with Antebellum — they should leave the writing to someone else next time. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past,” reads the William Faulkner quote that opens the film, but rather than use it as a jumping off point for commentary on the lasting racism in today’s America it’s instead used simply as a statement of fact. There was racism in the 1800s, and there’s still racism now. Cool guys, thanks for the heads up.
Antebellum has nothing to say beyond that sad observation, and it does nothing with the implied meaning of its title either. Has this country once again found itself in the days “before the war?” Crickets. Instead the filmmakers seem to think that showcasing and highlighting the abuses endured by slaves — such scenes make up roughly half the film — suffices as both social commentary and horror. No film is obligated to be relevant, obviously, but this one believes it is despite the evidence to the contrary.
They continue to drop the ball by failing to deliver a truly satisfying catharsis with the finale. It’s handed to them on a platter as the human carnage on display — beating, branding, shooting, verbal, rape, murder — leaves viewers ready for justice, the more violent and exploitative the better, but we’re instead dealt a poorly crafted and underwhelming wrap-up that neglects both thrills and emotional satisfaction. The filmmakers instead pin their hopes on one final “reveal” that’s meant as a gut punch of sorts while instead landing with a dull giggle.
Bush and Renz are more successful as directors and deliver an attractively shot film with Antebellum. Plantation-set sequences capture the days with a hazy, nightmarish quality, particularly during the opening tracking shot, while the stretch in the big city feels vibrant, alive, and fast-moving by comparison. Certain scenes approach suspense as well in their staging and pacing. Basically, the film looks good despite being bad, but of course, cinematographer Pedro Luque deserves credit there too.
Those are small successes in an otherwise dumpster fire of a film, though. The creepy “ghost” girl makes zero sense. A bout of exposition yelled while engaged in a chase and firing a gun on horseback is unintentionally hilarious. Malone acts as if she was ordered to overdo every line at gunpoint. The entire second act feels like it should have been the first as it now plays like filler seeing as audiences know exactly what’s coming.
There’s a bigger question to as to what the film says about the subjugation of Black Americans. People often ask why there weren’t more examples of slaves rising up to overpower their captors who they typically outnumbered (and they ask the same of Jews during the Holocaust), but the answers have always been obvious. There are numerous reasons including fear, but chief among them are that they often knew nothing else, and they were embedded in a land where escape was hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Neither is the case here, but the plantation’s slaves melt into their new roles with depressing ease.
Antebellum is a misfire across the board. It lacks the mythology of Candyman (1992), the blackly comic horror of Tales from the Hood (1995), and the wit of Get Out (2017), and it instead delivers nothing but pain without purpose. Yes, the past isn’t even past, and the human evils our country has known are still around today… and? The film suggests it can be difficult to tell who’s harboring such foul thoughts, but that’s not the case in a movie filled with mustache-twirling and over-acting, and it’s not the case in today’s world where hatred is worn on the outside through flags, bumper stickers, social media, and presidential decree.