(editor’s note: I have done my best to avoid spoilers in the below, but can’t swear that there aren’t any.)
Not for the first, it is important to say that there is a difference between raising important ideas in a movie and making an overall compelling film. Conflating the two is dangerous. “Antebellum,” which is co-written and co-directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, has massively important things to say, it just doesn’t say them all that well. It turns what could be a terrifying examination of our world into a movie instead focused on twists and turns that many will see coming from quite distance.
“Antebellum” opens on a southern plantation complete with Confederate soldiers and numerous slaves. We meet Janelle Monáe’s Eden and witness the horrors she has to undergo. It may not be the first time such things have been depicted, but it still—as it should—causes upset and disgust.
For roughly 40 minutes we see the plantation, see the soldiers, see the white family living there, witness the abuse (a slave beautifully and heartbreakingly portrayed by Kiersey Clemons gets some of the worst of it), and wonder when the slaves are going to make a run for it (something that comes up more than once). The movie may not significantly progress during this time, but it certainly makes the audience feel awful.
We should feel awful. Slavery occurred in this country and we, as a nation, are still trying to come to grips with what that means to this day. All too often, too many people choose to ignore this fact; choose to ignore that not only do the effects of slavery linger, but that the United States has built many institutions which continue to promote an unequal country.
No, that’s not a political statement, it’s a fact, and it’s also directly the point of “Antebellum” which, after those first 40 minutes, jumps to the modern world. Here, Monáe is playing Veronica, a woman with a Ph.D., a family, and a very successful career writing and speaking about racism and its effects on our world.
The jump is portrayed as a big surprise and that is a disappointment. During multiple portions of the plantation sequence there is every indication that the movie has a major turn coming. Many viewers will even be able to spot the specific nature of the turn and will have spent a good portion of time waiting for it.
The movie is doing itself a disservice, because the message, again, is big and powerful and important and winds up buried. Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles are great as Veronica’s friends, but the story itself is so tightly wound around getting back to the plantation, of linking it to Veronica’s tale and what that means, that no amount of excellence by either of them can divert the audience’s attention.
The whole point of “Antebellum,” of this this Civil War-era plantation, and African American people being forced into servitude, and the way the film is structured with Monáe as Eden and Veronica, is that it’s happening today. African American people in this country are shot multiple times by police even if they’re unarmed. They’re killed in their own homes. They’re told to not protest and that when they do they’re “thugs.” They’re told that it’s okay for a minor to illegally have a gun, carry that gun over state lines, and commit murder if the minor is white and he’s killing people of color. They watch as white protestors carry guns into a state capitol to protest not getting to do whatever they want during a pandemic and, not just have zero consequences, but be lauded for standing up for their rights.
We all see it happening. We all hear and read of revisionist history suggesting that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery (despite the announcements made by multiple states as they seceded that they were leaving the union because they wanted slaves). We all hear neo-Nazis called “very fine people.” We are all told that honoring those who died because they didn’t want to be a part of United States (again, so they could have slaves) is somehow patriotic.
And, we’re told that that daring to question any of this is somehow wrong and un-American; that even kneeling during the National Anthem to shine a light on any of it is wrong.
That is what “Antebellum” is about. That is the message the movie is trying to get across. Monáe is fantastic in her role helping deliver that message, and there are definitely moments where the point comes out. However, by and large, the tale so in love with its own idea of this would-be shocking turn and upping a supernatural sort of creepy factor that the overarching ideas—the very things that should come to the fore and make us all stand up and take notice—get softened and wind up hidden.
“Antebellum” is a disappointment because it is so close to greatness and its shortcomings cause it to fall hard and fast. That doesn’t lessen the ideals it’s trying to put forth, but it does lessen the impact they make.
photo credit: Lionsgate