Antebellum (2020)

Director: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Writer: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Cast: Janelle Monáe, Tongayi Chirisa, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson, Lily Cowles, Grace Junot, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Eric Lange
Seen on: 4.10.2022

Content Note: slavery, rape, (critical treatment of) racism

Eden (Janelle Monáe) is enslaved on a cotton farm, together with many Black people – like Eli (Tongayi Chirisa). She is ruled over by him (Eric Lange), and they are all kept in line by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and his wife Elizabeth (Jena Malone). Meanwhile, Veronica (Janelle Monáe) is a successful historian and an out-spoken activist for Black rights. But then Elizabeth contacts her, making strange comments and Veronica finds herself in a very tight spot after a night out with friends.

For a second there, I thought that Antebellum had basically stolen its idea from Kindred, but the film takes a different, no less creepy direction that I found very interesting. Unfortunately, the execution lacks character work, so things feel stale for the most part and lack the impact that the story needed.

The film poster showing Veronica (Janelle Monáe) with a red butterfly printed in dripping red over her mouth.

The movie works very hard to keep it a surprise how Veronica and Eden are connected – and they do succeed in that. But in their quest of surprising us, the script witholds too much information – about the characters, and their motivations, for example. Finally, everything is off-loaded in the third act after things are brought together in a really clumsy way.

It is a pity because the idea, I thought, is really interesting, as the film draws a direct line from the slavery in civil war times to racist micro-aggressions that even the most successful and rich Black people still have to face today. Even when everything seems to be perfect and they appear to be in full control, their peace and success is a fragile one as their Blackness can be always used against them in a white supremacist system.

Eden (Janelle Monáe) working in the cotton field.

Plus, the film (and Monáe) looks really good. Especially in modern times, the costume design is absolutely fantastic, and the cinematography is really sleek. Unfortunately, that sleekness is not the right mode of portraying the horrific violence perpetrated against Black characters here. It starts to feel exploitative rather than evocative.

It’s not just the cinematography’s fault, though, but also the fact that the characters just aren’t fleshed out enough, especially the Black people. Not that the white folk are fleshed out more, but I didn’t need more backstory or motivation for them than “they’re racist and powerful”. Monáe does a lot to give us something to hold on to with Veronica and Eden, but it’s not entirely enough for such a sprawling narrative.

Still, I found Antebellum to be interesting at the very least, albeit not a great film. And it does make some good points about white supremacy today.

Veronica (Janelle Monáe) out at night.

Summarizing: some problematic bits, but interesting ones, too.

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