This week’s release Antebellum by the producers of “Get Out” and “Us” is a horror-thriller that uses all sorts imagery of slavery and America’s long overdue racial reckoning and still fails to make an impact of the message that it’s trying to convey.
The film is clearly a horror one but the same cannot be said about its social relevance regarding systematic racism. Had it been in better hands it would have not failed to follow the path of other extremely successful titles like 12 Years A Slave and Gone With The Wind of the same sub-genre.
“The South lost the war but won the narrative,” is what is said about the Civil War. In the face of such malignant propaganda as Apartheid, Antebellum is dropped like a bomb ready to explode.
This story of a successful black woman held captive and forced into slavery in today’s world is entirely shocking to several of us. Because this is not what we expect after several years of working for the rights of Native Americans. Very high hopes were set after watching the Oscar-winning Get Out for Best Original Screenplay and the follow-up Us by the same producer Jordan Peele.
Apart from serving as reminders of the atrocities committed against the blacks, these movies also successfully display a very satirical POV of racism that’s still persistent.
Antebellum similarly shows a cross between the pre-Civil War slavery and the contemporary world. Although all we can see is the regressive mindset still present to some extent. The implication is deep, though badly expressed.
Janelle Monáe plays a central role in the film as a woman named Veronica Henley. She is a 21st century progressive and successful woman. The time-blending narrative of the film shows her as a woman who is enslaved to work in the Southern slave plantation.
With its scenes of violence, kidnapping, whipping, and sexual assault, the film evokes pity for those in captive. Although, not much work has been done on the storyline to make it relevant.
The first 40 minutes of the movie is set in southern Antebellum where the whites are seen terrorizing the blacks kept as slaves. Vicious slave owners like the unnamed man who is referred to as ‘Him’ and played by Eric Lange and Captain Jasper played by Jack Houston are seen whipping their slaves, branding them, and treating them harshly including Eden (Monáe), Julia (Kiersey Clemons) and Eli (Tongayi Chirisa).
All of a sudden we see a change in the scenery. Eden is transported to the present day and is now Veronica. She has a luxurious home, a handsome husband (Marque Richardson), and an adorable daughter (London Boyce).
Further, she is a yoga enthusiast and a skilled horse-jumper Compared to the life that was shown previously, this one is contrastingly well-off. The darkness of the plantation is seamlessly replaced with Veronica’s gleaming life which almost seems superficial. She has a completely different identity as a successful and renowned sociologist and author. Gabourey Sidibe already steals the spotlight with her upbeat energy and liveliness.
Meanwhile, with Jena Malone posing as a representative of a private company with an interest in Veronica’s work we already start getting evil vibes. She goes through her things and accesses all her information.
When Veronica takes leave in an Uber that she thought was her ride back to the hotel, she gets kidnapped. If you have not realized yet, then let me tell you that the plantation where she was held captive is just a modern-day replica designed by wealthy racists to carry out their immensely vile fantasies. As she realizes that she is no tamed slave but a woman with potential, she tries to fight back for the second time.
She teams up with her fellow captive in order to break free from the place. In the process, she kills ‘Him’ and other soldiers who would have killed her if she hadn’t. She flees on horseback from the chaos revealing that the place was just a re-enactment of the Civil War owned by ‘Him’, whose actual name was Blake Denton.
As the film ends, Elizabeth reveals that Veronica was the only captive that was kidnapped at her father’s insistence. Unlike her, the rest of them were handpicked.
Maybe the fact that she was an independent and progressive black woman, had made those racists resentful. This could be the reason for her getting kidnapped in order to include her into the weirdly inhumane experiment of restoring hierarchy among the human factions. The point that Antebellum wants to make here isn’t to introduce such practices to the world. Rather, what we see is that racism to some extent is still prevalent in this age.
Insidious pride still exists and if given an opportunity some vain white Americans would jump to undermine the blacks. The institution of slavery would happily be brought back if the decision rests in the hands of the wrong person.
But Slavery was abolished long back. This is a subject that was dealt with almost 400 hundred years ago. Then why bring it back. Slavery is a very sensitive topic for most of us, let us agree with that. Films about slavery have to deal with the emotional level of the audience, critics, and historians. It is a very complex and delicate piece of art for what as Bush said is, “this country’s original sin”.
As of today, we still see several instances of racism. This topic was well dealt with in Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out that used themes of bondage, oppression, and loss of humanity to weave a modern horror story that we could all relate to. Following suit to this newly introduced genre of the cinematic explorations of slavery were Us, Candyman and many others.
Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, the film is not as revered as its counterparts of the same canon like Gone With the Wind or Django Unchained or even 12 Years a Slave. This could be because the gory images of slavery that Antebellum depicts fail to convey anything worth relating to. With history, fantasy, and horror weaved together, maybe the directors didn’t quite pull it off so well. The much-needed balance between thrills and social commentary was missing.
To conclude, the film lacks insight into the power, memory and psychology of enslavement. Instead it heavily relies on disturbing imagery. What is the point of displaying such brutality to tell us what we already know? “Was this imagery really needed,” is the question that the directors needed to ask themselves here. It almost seems like a movie with no purpose other than to take its audience on a ride to see the harassment suffered by the Blacks.
The final twist of the movie is so gimmicky that what we see in the course of the entire movie feels nothing. Although the directing team is quite well-known for such topics and spread social awareness, this one time they have bitten off more than what they can chew. Unfortunately, the time leap and gimmicky ending ruined it all.
However, the one thing that Antebellum leaves in the mind of its audience was why Eden was the one to break free of such a prison. Why not the dozens of other Black people held captive? On one hand, she uses horse-riding and Yoga skills to evade danger. She is the determined and successful woman that she is, bent upon escaping whatever world she was caught in. Except, on the other hand, the people with almost no representation or dialogues in the movie moved about as if they had already accepted their fate. What happened to the progressive mindset of the 21st century? Why was everyone else behaving like actual slaves living in the 19th century? The thought is quite disturbing.
However Antebellum addresses the real fear of Black people in a racist society. A society where certain fundamental rights like liberty and pursuit of happiness are snatched away from them. Incidents such as high police shootings, property seizures, and incarcerations among African Americans really question the presence of equality in our society. The entire situation is left unanswered by the makers of the film. Metaphorical horror stories require careful wordbuilding which is apparently not present in Antebellum. Yes, the stark images of inhumane cruelty will shock the audience but it still revels in the ignorance of present-day on such matters.
REVIEWS FROM OTHER SITES
- On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 28% based on 116 reviews.
- The average rating of the movie on Metacritic is 4.8/10. The film has a weighted average score of 44 out of 100, based on 34 critics, indicating “mixed or average reviews”.
- In a review by film critic Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post, Antebellum was called a “muddled misfire of a fantasy-horror film.”
- Similarly, unimpressed by how the film went, Entertainment Weekly called it an, “underbaked slavery fable”.
- Writing for the Hollywood Reporter, Jordan Searles said that the film “is shallow, more interested in making a Big Point than digging meaningfully into its subject.” Moreover, he said the film was “more interested in making a point than digging deep” and “In the end, Antebellum is undone by a lack of empathy and emotion. It has no real perspective on the past and thus fails to make any real impact on the present.”
- The Globe and Mail took the entire genre to task: “At the end of the day, if this is what contemporary slave narratives are belatedly evolving into, I’m not sure that the genre is worth rehabilitating.”
- David Ehrlich of IndieWire gave the film a “C+” and wrote, “An artful and provocative movie about the enduring horror of America’s original sin, Antebellum can’t follow through on its own concept.”
Despite the best efforts of the directors to set an example like other films on slavery, the film simply ends up being a mash of messaging. The fault lies in the badly structured and confusing plot. However stars like Janelle Monáe, still manages to shine not only as Eden, a mistreated slave in a pre-Civil War era plantation but also as Veronica who is quite an intellectual and progressive woman of modern day. Her presence on screen is quite captivating but even she can only do so much when there’s so little to her character between the extremes of endless victimization and empty platitudes of empowerment. It seems quite unfair for her to bear the unfair burden of carrying the film on her shoulders.
The concept of Antebellum is quite appealing when you hear it. But as the film plays out, all you see is nothing but the same history that we are all familiar with exploited in a different manner. Although not every film with a social message can be as revered as Get Out. They should be instead striving to stand on their own.