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Exploitive and empty, ‘Antebellum’ is meaningless misery masquerading as something more

Exploitive and empty, ‘Antebellum’ is meaningless misery masquerading as something more

Exploitive and empty, ‘Antebellum’ is meaningless misery masquerading as something more
September 23
14:42 2020

Content warning: discussions of heavy violence, sexual assault and spoilers

“The past isn’t dead. The past isn’t even past.”

Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe), a successful sociologist living in the present, wakes up one day to find herself as a slave named Eden in what appears to be an Antebellum-era slave plantation. Enduring intense humiliation, torture and assault, she must figure out what’s going on and escape.

The full-length directorial debut of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, “Antebellum” is an ambitious film on its surface. With big-names Monáe, Jena Malone, Eric Lange and up-and-comer Kiersey Clemons headlining, the trailers for “Antebellum” appeared to promise a time-bending tale seeking to explore America’s past sins and their ripples in the present.

Right off the bat, Bush and Renz’s ambition is clear — the first seven or so minutes is one uninterrupted tracking shot from the front of the plantation mansion past the slaves’ quarters to a scuffle between Confederates and a pair of escaping slaves. Throughout the opening and beyond, Bush and Renz frame some striking imagery and make full use of the colorful vistas of the sinister estate, especially against the gorgeous Louisiana sunset.

Monáe also gets to put an especially committed performance, effortlessly portraying Virginia as not only the near-broken and not-defeated survivor of endless torment, but a strong and incisive heroine. She also gets her own awesome moments near the end, one involving a burning furnace turned against its owners.

These pros do little, however, to distract from the fact that “Antebellum” is not only the most disappointing movie of 2020 so far, it’s also easily one of the year’s worst. The promise of a time-bending social horror in the vein of “Get Out,” which Renz and Bush co-produced, instead mostly consists of scenes of Black people being beaten, tortured, shot, sexually assaulted, miscarrying, whipped and other violent acts without much in the way of nuance or thematic coherence.

The film feels likes trying to imitate far better flicks, like “Get Out” (again), “12 Years a Slave,” “Django Unchained,” the list goes on. However, Bush and Renz aren’t really able to carve an identity beyond Confederate memorabilia, Black people being brutally beaten and occasional photos of Black historical figures. “Antebellum” is more interested in evoking those movies than actually doing something new or substantive. Everything is a shallower facsimile of something else.

Bush and Renz don’t help their case by giving all the characterization to Veronica and almost none to the other slaves. While they choose to depict slaves having names forced on them, they don’t really do anything else with any of the supporting characters. The other slaves, such as Eli (Tongayi Chirisa) and Julia (Clemons), aren’t given much to do outside of servicing Veronica’s story.

Regarding every other Black character who’s not Veronica or in the second act, none of them get any real characterization or personality traits beyond their name. Their slave name. Despite interrogating the dehumanizing element of slavery, Bush and Renz themselves end up dehumanizing the victims in the process. Which is pretty messed up from a storytelling perspective, however unintentional as the end result may be.

Then there’s the twist, and here’s where the spoilers start.

So, there is no time travel. None, even though the marketing team heavily focused on the butterfly motif. The plantation where Veronica is enslaved is actually a hidden compound run by extremely rich, powerful white conservatives who kidnap and enslave Black Americans to live out their racist power fantasies as slave-owning, victorious Confederates. It’s certainly a choice.

It is actually well-hinted at, with the faux-Confederates shouting Neo-Nazi slogans, some modern swearing and even some background information in the present-day sections for the observant. However, the internal logic is faulty – how long has the plantation been operating for, how has the entire operation not been compromised with aircraft flying overhead every now and then (which the slaves can see) and how are the captives not picking up on the pretty obvious idiosyncrasies on display?

The plantation is also located right next to a Civil War reenactment park and civilization, plus it’s run by a U.S. senator and his family, so there should at least be some scrutiny from investigative journalists. Honestly, how they managed to get this setup going and keep it under wraps would make for a far more interesting movie — maybe a conspiracy thriller, aka “Spotlight,” “State of Play” and even classics like “The Parallax View.”

There is so much thematic potential with the setting — Bush and Renz could more closely examine the continued presence of white supremacy in American politics, the school-to-prison pipeline, the conversation over Confederate symbolism in the present —but they don’t do anything with what they have. Again, the story is empty and without much to really say other than, “Confederacy bad.”

“Antebellum” is, to paraphrase, a horrible tale told by visually adept but incompetent storytellers, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is worse than “The Hunt,” “Coffee & Kareem” and even “Bloodshot.” It is not worth $20 or 105 minutes of your time.

Final rating: 1.5/5

Featured image: Courtesy Lionsgate

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Will Tarpley

Will Tarpley

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