Monday, October 5, 2020

31 Days of Horror: Antebellum

Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz.
2020. Rated R, 106 minutes.
Cast: Janelle Monae, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Eric Lange, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson, Tongayi Chirisa, Robert Aramayo, Lily Cowles. 

Social commentary through horror is hardly a new phenomenon. After all, the best of the genre explores the awful ways we humans affect each other. Rarely has it been handled so directly, and simultaneously successfully, as in Jordan Peele's Get Out from 2017. Naturally, other films would pick up the baton and try to run with it. The results have been mixed, at best. Peele's own follow-up, 2019's Us, is the best of the bunch, and even that's a polarizing film. Some, like me, hail it as one of that year's best films, while nearly as many dismiss it as convoluted and too clever by half. Others, such as the feminist powered remake of Black Christmas, have been universally derided, or ignored like 2018's Tales from the Hood 2. As all the marketing tells us, the producers of Peele's two films take another crack at it with Antebellum. This is not the last time we'll talk about marketing. 

The film opens on a slave plantation during the Civil War. We learn that the Confederate army has just gained a victory over Union troops, and see the harsh treatment of humans in bondage that we know all too well. Of course, this includes raping of women. Our main character, Eden (Monae), is not only raped, but branded in an excruciating scene. Thankfully, she wakes up in the present, realizing it was all a dream. We find out that in real life she's a highly in-demand scholar: the type often brought on TV to discuss Black issues. We meet her husband and daughter, followed by her bestest buddies, who take her for a girls' night out. One thing leads to another and, well, I'll leave it at that.

Much of this setup is intriguing to watch. It has everything to do with Janelle Monae in the lead. She has an effortless charm that's amplified when interacting with others during the most pleasant moments. She also has a vulnerability that transcends the screen. She has a way of conveying her character's emotions with a recognizable subtlety. When called upon to be more out there, she can handle that, as well. The writing helps during the present day scenes by not-so-subtly calling back to the beginning of the film and blatantly signaling what's to come. Normally, that's a death-knell, but works out in this instance.

Things fall off the rails mainly because its train too weak stay on them. It wants to warn us against armchair activism and becoming too comfortable with whatever progress we, as Black people, have made in this country. It could all be snatched away in an instant. It puts that intrinsic fear in our face, but doesn't do enough with it. Every character not named Eden feels like a throwaway character. None are developed properly. Even those who have heinous things happen to them aren't properly fleshed out within the story. Julia (Clemons) is the film's biggest victim. She's meant to represent all the ills visited upon Black women by the institution of slavery, even more than Eden. However, the movie relies on what we already know of such things without making us feel for her in particular. Eli (Chirisa) is treated similarly. The things he does in the movie should cause us to be far more emotional. Instead, they just feel like boxes being ticked on the way to the ending. In short, the film absolutely refuses to develops characters that should matter. The ones it pays most attention to, aside from Eden, disappear from the film about halfway through. 

Finally, Antebellum gives us one-dimensional, easily digestible villains. The movie wants them to stand for something greater, but they're simply as they are: the exact people we would expect to be involved in something like this. It says nothing new about them, giving us nothing to contemplate. The magic of Jordan Peele's efforts, Get Out and Us, is that the bad guys give the audience pause. In the former, Black viewers might instantly recognize the casual racism of the film's earlier scenes, but White viewers are often having their eyes opened, perhaps revealing themselves to themselves. In Us, we're all figuring out who the villains are. Here, the whole thing plays out the way we would expect if these people got their way with no surprises to be had.

There is supposed to be a surprise, though. And here is where we get back to marketing. In some ads for the film, they've included snippets from critics proclaiming the film's twist to be the most amazing thing since whenever. Others implores the audience once they've seen it "Don't give away the twist." Unfortunately, the film itself gives this away before it should. The problem is that by ignoring everyone outside of the situation they put the protagonist in, they left no other way to advance the plot beyond a certain point without spoiling itself. This compounds the error of treating others who are in the situation with her like fodder. Antebellum ends up as a film with a promising beginning and an ending that should be brilliant. It's an enticing dish on the outside, but woefully undercooked in the middle.


  1. The concept of this film sounds so intriguing but all the reviews I've read so far were really disappointed. :-(

  2. I only wanted to see this largely because of Jena as I heard she goes all-out as a villainous white woman. When I read the twist, that killed whatever interest I had for the film. Fortunately, I have another horror film starring Jena that I will watch this month (hopefully) that's more obscure.

    1. Malone is fine. Unfortunately, she has the same problem everyone else in the movie has (except Janelle Monae), she's given very little to work with.

  3. Well said Dell! I think I would have enjoyed this a lot more if Ii went in blind. That trailer was atrocious if they really wanted to keep the twist a secret. Janelle Monae is brilliant though - I can't wait to see what they star in next <3

    1. Monae has proven to be a great actress. Hopefully, her next vehicle will be better.