I am tired. I am tired of pop-cultural artifacts that render Black people as merely Black bodies onto which the sins of this ragged country are violently mapped. I am tired of suffering being the primary lens through which we understand Black identity. I am tired of being so hungry for Black joy and Black representation that scraps feel like a meal. I am tired of films about slavery refusing to acknowledge the interior lives of Black women even as their beings become tools for filmmakers to explore the horrors of the enslaved. I am tired of thin characterization and milquetoast social messaging being the kind of representation Black folks receive. I am tired of films like Antebellum.
The feature debut of writer-director duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz is seemingly poised — with an overly serious demeanor — to provoke a reckoning. Especially if you ask its directors, who, in an introduction that preceded the version of their film I watched, prattled on about their lofty goal to “activate a conversation” that is “of and for this moment.” Instead, Antebellum reaffirms the very horror it’s trying to critique.
Beginning with the ostentatious opening tracking shot — snaking its way through plantation grounds, noting the hard work of the Black folks on the land and the white Confederate soldiers watching their every move — we are plunged into a world both strange and achingly familiar. A world of picked cotton and casual cruelty, prim southern ritual and uninhibited brutality. But there is something amiss about the plantation on which Eden (Janelle Monáe) is viciously abused and from which she continuously tries to escape. The first cue that things are far from what they seem is the appearance of a golden septum piercing glinting in the light on the face of another enslaved woman as she futilely tries to break free and is unceremoniously killed for it.
But before we learn anything about Eden’s reality, before we even know her actual name, we witness profound violence against her, first in a harrowing scene in which she’s branded. After 40 minutes of unrelenting torture in antebellum dress, the film turns on its axis. Monáe is reintroduced as Veronica Henley, a famous writer and activist of considerable wealth, with a doting husband and young daughter. Here, we get more detail about her lavish home than the actual characters who live there with her, the camera panning across the luxe interior and photographs of Veronica competing in horse-jumping events (a subtle gesture to what’s to come in the third act). At one point in this contemporary setting, Veronica says to a friend, “My nana used to say our ancestors haunt our dreams to see themselves forward.” The line suggests a multitude of fantastical pathways for Antebellum. Is this story like something out of Octavia Butler’s Kindred? Is the Monáe we saw before a figment of the memories of Veronica’s distant relatives? Is there something supernatural afoot? No. Instead, the filmmakers choose a more banal explanation. Her link to the plantation we witness in the first act of the film is less imaginative than that slip of dialogue suggests.
Antebellum ends up being a noxious tour of historic violence against Black folks in service of a story that has nothing novel to say about the obliterating function of whiteness and anti-Black racism. Lacking a strong point of view to grant interiority to its characters, its approach to horror and social commentary becomes deadened. On the level of craft, Antebellum assumes beauty — the film is obsessed with depicting the magic hour in all its sherbet-hued glory — is inherently rich with meaning. As a result, the world-building is slapdash, confusing obfuscation with intrigue. Antebellum is an artistic failure of two directors whose goals supersede their ability to meet them, festering with not only aesthetic and narrative failures but moral ones too: It implicitly argues that depictions of suffering are the best means of understanding what it means to be Black in America.
In the wake of Jordan Peele’s success with his first two films — the exploratory Get Out and the beguiling but messy Us — Hollywood has realized that horror is an apt venue for excavating the grooves of Black identity and the mellifluous, dynamic experience of what it means to be Black throughout the diaspora. There is Misha Green’s overwrought Lovecraft Country currently airing on HBO, as well as Justin Simien’s Bad Hair and Nia Dacosta’s upcoming reimagining of the 1990s Tony Todd classic Candyman. The genre, at its best, lets us explore cultural taboos and fears with an unvarnished alacrity. I still think it’s possible to do a horror film that explores slavery in this country’s history, but that requires a sure hand, a strong point a view, and an even stronger sense of history — none of which is demonstrated in Antebellum. It’s hard to create any tension when the characters are so poorly drawn and the world they inhabit has little internal logic. Sure, there are scant moments of tension, but they fizzle out quickly thanks to the inert dialogue and rank stupidity of the story (much of which I can’t get into without spoiling the majority of the plot).
White people in particular are rendered as caricatures who seem to get an erotic charge from the violence they inflict, including Jack Huston as the leering Hugo Meadows, a Confederate solider of great standing who supervises the plantation — which isn’t necessarily a misguided approach so much as improperly executed, flattening rather than revealing anything about the nature of whiteness and its emptiness in America. Whiteness is an oft-told lie that powers much of the world, yet Antebellum is neither cunning enough nor intellectually ambitious enough to explain such a truth. So the white people have no internal logic, no gravitas. They evoke neither fear nor overwhelming hate, mostly just boredom, except for Jena Malone, who comes the closest to striking the necessary chord by foregrounding white women’s toxicity. But her performance is undone by the odd dishonesty of the film — the N-word is never uttered, for one.
The idea of doing a slave narrative, even one wrapped in a twist that puts a Black woman at the fore, is a risky proposition, given that slavery period films rarely allow the interior life of their characters to rise above the physical and psychological pain they endure. Who even is Veronica? When we see her onstage at a public appearance in New Orleans, staring out at the beaming faces of so many Black women, she speaks in empty, progressive platitudes that make it hard to understand the work she actually does. (I lost count at how many times she shoved the word “patriarchy” into her sentences.) A strange grasp of class snakes its way through the story, too; it’s as if the filmmakers are drawing a line from the worth of a modern-day Black person to the intellectual/financial class they inhabit. (One of the more important deaths in the film is of a character who is only referred to as “professor,” but given no defining features beyond that.)
The effect is wholly distancing. It’s worthwhile to explore the pain and grit of moving through America while being Black, but that exploration shouldn’t come at the expense of the humanity of the characters. Janelle Monáe is entirely miscast; she has been charming in supporting roles like that in Moonlight, but here she lacks the gravitas and precision to make Veronica feel real. But I can’t blame her for not bringing to life what obviously didn’t exist on the page. Antebellum is ultimately a travesty of craft and filmmaking with a perspective that hollows out the Black experience in favor of wan horror.