It’s almost spooky season, I’m gearing up to watch my 31 in 31 horror films and am incredibly excited to do so. When I was asked to watch and review Antebellum, I had already had apprehensions. To be quite honest, I almost never watch movies about slavery. I find them pretty exploitative, repulsive, and an excuse for white actors to get in touch with their brutality a little too comfortably. So, I admittedly went in with my misgivings. However, with Janelle Monae as the star of this film, I was expecting some black queer majesty to go along with some disturbing imagery.
Due to the trailer and the promotion around the movie, I think many of us have had the idea that this would be very “Octavia Butler’s Kindred: The Film.” It’s not. Antebellum is its own story with its own motifs and motivations, though I think it could have drawn and learned from the lessons of Kindred, namely, the ability to draw fear into the heart of the viewer.
My biggest take away from Antebellum was this: I wasn’t afraid, wasn’t disturbed or challenged. The movie, while aesthetically beautiful, fell flat. Before I dive deeper into that, I want to give a brief criterion of what I look for during my viewing experience:
- Diversity of characters: the more women and gays the better
- Suspense and surprise, I don’t want to see the ending coming 15 minutes in
- Number of frequency of kills
- Method of kills
- A movie aware of its cultural and historical context
- Does it make me jump or scream? If I have to pause before I can continue watching, that’s a good sign!
- A damn good score
- For me, horror includes: ghosts/demons/hauntings in general, creature features, vampires, body horror and torture, and the occasional psychological thriller.
Now, with Antebellum and possible other slave-centric horror films, I’m not going in with this thirst for blood and kills, though I do expect there to be some violence. I go in with a revision to this clause because the violence of course will be enacted savagely on black people, which is not necessarily something that I can get excitement out of. For me, and many other horror fans, part of the appeal is knowing that people will die in new and creative ways. In a world where I can open my phone and stream racist violence enacted against black people by the state on a daily basis, it’s not something I was looking for during my watching of this movie. I was, however, at least hoping to be frightened. To have to look away or pull the covers a little tighter around me, for my heart to pound or my blood to race. With Antebellum, I didn’t get that. I often even felt — dare I say — bored.
The film starts by introducing us to Eden (Janelle Monáe), a slave who has tried to escape from the plantation she is on, governed by two cruel men, Him and Captain Jasper. These men are your typical, run of the mill overseer characters that revel in calling black people racial slurs of all varieties, threatening and being imposing to women, etc. The film doesn’t do anything to complicate or change these characters; it feels like the archetypes could have been cropped out of any slave movie. They aren’t memorable for their own sake. Eden spends all of her time plotting an escape, practicing walking in her cabin as to not step on the creaky floorboards, even greasing the hinges on her door so it too doesn’t make any noise in the night. Eden’s opening is played beside Eli (Tongayi Chirisa). Eli’s lover murdered in front of him, presumably for trying to escape as well. Eli often visits Eden at her cabin, begging her to make another attempt to escape, even after she is painfully branded.
As expected, Antebellum contains violence against black people, but that violence feels almost… comical. It’s just bad and unbelievable. There is something inanely missing from those moments. I think this is where the film lacks. Part of the fear factor of any horror thriller is that the viewer has to connect with some character, to be able to imagine themselves in that situation, so they themselves can feel the fear that is being portrayed on screen. In Antebellum, I feel like I’m being held at arm’s length from the emotion of the movie.
When a new slave, Julia (Kiersey Clemons), is introduced to the plantation, things start to change for Eden. Julia is pregnant and desperate to get off of this plantation no matter what she has to do. She’s unabashed in her lust for freedom, not afraid to show her emotion or roll her eyes at the overseers when interacting with them. Kiersey Clemons’s performance as Julia is one of the few shining points in Antebellum, though I still found it lacking.
After a brutal night where she’s beaten by a soldier for talking to him without permission, Julia loses her baby. She discovers this while in the field picking cotton and drops to her knees wailing. It felt like the often parodied scene in a movie where the main character, having lost someone, kneels in the rain and screams “NOOOOOOOO” at the sky. I found myself sighing with disbelief — even the score lags, failing to make the guttural feeling of loss swell within me.
Something about the movie just feels off at this point, the accents are barely there for the time period and to be set in the Civil War era South. This is in part due to the big twist at the end, but also feels like a poor storytelling choice.
There’s a scene where the confederate soldiers are scene marching holding torches, mirroring the now infamous images of 2017 in Charlottesville where Nazi’s were seen carrying tiki torches. In the movie, the soldiers also chant “blood and soil,” same as they did at the Unite the Right rally. It’s here where Antebellum begins stitching together past and present, making them inseparable as we understand them to be. But even in these scenes, the movie feels afraid to really “go there.” Something about it holds back, possibly the fear of being exploitative when it comes to depicting racist violence against black people. It’s tame when it should be bold, there are moments where I found the symbolism a little too on the nose.
After a short scene of sexual violence, we are transported to the present. Eden falls asleep and wakes up as Veronica Henley, a successful, highly educated black woman sociologist at the top of her game.
Veronica appears as a guest on television debating a white analyst and so-called “eugenics expert” about racial inequity. She’s in the midst of promoting her new book “Shedding the Coping Persona” which appears to be a new way of referring to code-switching and the idea of double-consciousness.
The scenes that take place in the “modern world” are some of the hardest to watch — not because of fear and suspense, but the acting and the content. The dialogue feels like white liberals using black actresses to feel comfortable getting away with Black Twitter slang. At one point, Veronica’s best friend Dawn screams “The Caucasity!” in a restaurant after berating a white waitress. Dawn, played by Gabourey Sidibe, in particular feels like a caricature of a black woman dreamed up by a white person. She calls the waitress Becky and carries on about the injustice of being seated at a bad table. While Veronica speaks to the audience about the harmful trope of the “angry black woman,” Antebellum then goes on to make a living, breathing one in Dawn.
Veronica, by contrast, is cool and poised. Her success is supposed to be a focal point — we see a slow pan of her degrees on a wall, her perfect husband, daughter, and life. Money appears to be of no consequence to her. Despite her success, Veronica still has to deal with microaggressions from white women. During an interview with a mysterious blond named Elizabeth, Vernoica is told she is “so articulate” as if it is a surprise.
Now I might get some flack for saying this, but bear with me. Veronica herself feels like a neoliberal fantasy. She’s an educated powerful black woman that appears to have no worries, save the occasional off-color comment from a white woman. The end that Veronica ultimately meets feels like the all too common positioning of “black women as saviors” that we have seen in political discourse lately. Everyone seems to be waiting for one black woman to rise up and save the world from fascism. And Veronica is the kind of woman they imagine.
This is not to say that there are no successful black women, of course there are. Yet, Veronica feels more like a plot device instead of a real person. She has a conversation with one of her friends, Sarah, about how “the past is the present” — which feels a little too on the nose by the time it comes up. The movie is already doing the work to show us, we don’t need a line of dialogue about it.
Here is where I’ll spoil The Big Twist: After a night out with her friends, Veronica is kidnapped by the same white woman she had an interview with earlier, Elizabeth. We learn at this moment that we aren’t shifting between the past and the present, we have been in the present this whole time. Veronica has not been transported back in time, she is just being held captive on a civil war reenactment plantation where presumably rich people pay to enact violence and horror on black people. We are lead to believe that Veronica is chosen because of her success, that because of her high standing she needed to be humbled.
This big twist is a part of what troubled me at the beginning of Antebellum. Early on, it made everything feel off. There’s a big difference between building suspense and intrigue and just coming off as wrong on the screen, and this movie felt wrong from its beginning. I will give credit in that I was led to believe we would be alternating between past and present when I first watched the trailer. Being proven wrong is one thing I like in a film, but this reveal was another moment where I rolled my eyes. It felt forced. In some ways, I think Antebellum would have been better if it were in fact a time-traveling thriller.
After we are back on the plantation, Eden makes her second attempt at an escape with Eli. Here we see a cell phone come out, further grounding us into this twist. Him/Senator Denton (Eric Lange) takes a phone call and later, his phone is stolen by Eden and Eli as they try to make their escape. One thing that again felt off during the film is that Eden calls the police when she first gets the phone. Seeing as the modern police force is just an evolution of slave catchers, for a film trying to make a point about how the horrors of the past still exist in the present — this feels both ahistorical and like a serious misstep.
After losing Eli, Eden does get her chance to escape, but not before a showdown with Elizabeth, Mrs. Microaggression from earlier who literally pays to play the headmistress of the plantation. The one thing Antebellum gets right is the villainy of white women, showcasing how they are just as complicit in the horrors of white supremacy as white men. Eden and Elizabeth both race on horseback, Eden toward freedom and Elizabeth toward enslavement. After a tussle, Eden/Veronica captures Elizabeth, tying a noose around her neck and dragging her through the forest, mirroring the first death we see on screen, but now with a white body. Elizabeth finally dies when after being dragged she is struck on the head by — and I’m not kidding — a statue of Robert E. Lee. This movie hits you over the head with its symbolism, hard enough to knock you out.
It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Like with writing, a good movie trusts the viewer enough to draw parallels and conclusions; it doesn’t carefully place them in our laps all tied up in a bow. Antebellum really wants to make a Big Point while leaving the fate of its characters in the shadows. What happens to Veronica after she charges toward freedom? And the other people who have been kidnapped? What about those that acted as enslavers, what will happen to them? We never learn that or are even pushed to really care. The humanizing parts of Veronica, her husband and daughter, are an afterthought — though they are seemingly what she is fighting so hard for.
Antebellum left my yearning for something that challenged me, something with substance and meat. I commend the effort to tackle one of our history’s most difficult topics but like with most slave films, it falls short. I’m still bothered by positioning Veronica as wildly successful. It’s supposed to make the scenes where she is enslaved more horrible to watch in comparison. In that vein, if Veronica were a black woman working in the service industry, would the violence she suffered be less jarring? It seems like Antebellum is setting us up for that kind of thinking, and it doesn’t sit well with me.
While Antebellum has been lambasted for gratuitous violence against black women, I think it pales in comparison to the actual bad writing. After shaking off my apprehension, I went in hoping to at least be dazzled by Janelle Monáe’s performance but even found myself wanting in that area as well. Antebellum fails to measure up and tell the story it is so desperately prodding at. In the end, I was glad to see no white savior appear. Veronica saves herself, as many black women do, but at what costs?
Too bad! Thank you for this review. I heard an interview with the directors – 2 men, 1 Black and 1 white, who are a gay couple as well as creative partners – and was curious.
Thanks for this detailed, insightful review. I’m going to give this a wide berth but yeah, it’s too bad, because, well, Janelle Monae! (I was also underwhelmed by her turn in Homecoming, but that at least didn’t have the egregious problems you’ve identified here.) Might go look up Lovecraft Country instead …