Horrors of slavery in ‘Antebellum’
new film “Antebellum” begins with a famous William Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
This is a very literal introduction to a film about the evils of de facto and de jure oppression of Black people in America that’s crafted as a high-concept nightmare. Essentially, a modern-day woman finds herself trapped and enslaved on a plantation and must find a way to escape and reclaim her identity. Perhaps the overused quote was a warning about the journey we were about to go on. Because while the concept is certainly intriguing, the execution falls woefully short of its potential. In other words, this is no “Get Out,” although it would like to be.
Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (in their feature debut) the film begins on the plantation. The camera floats over familiar images of Southern hypocrisy as a little white girl in a sunny yellow dress skips over to her mother on the steps of their grand estate while enslaved Black people work around them and Confederate soldiers march through the grounds. Janelle Monae is introduced as one of these enslaved people, Eden. And it’s not long before the brutality starts - branding, lynching, assault (verbal, sexual and physical).
We’re in this “past” for over 30 minutes before the film essentially stops and reboots itself in a modern setting where Monae is now Veronica Henley, a famous and wealthy writer and public intellectual who is going on a work trip. She has a picture-perfect life: A loving husband and a beautiful daughter, a magazine-worthy apartment, professional success and confidence. She’s the kind of notable author who gets asked to speak on television and at conferences about racism and empowerment. In an alternate reality, this could be the beginning of a rom-com.
But things are a little off here and the audience, along with Veronica, begin to see the cracks in this so-called progressive society where she is subjected to dehumanizing microaggressions and bigger slights over the course of a day. There’s the concierge at the hotel who takes a call instead of helping her. There’s the host at the restaurant who seats her and her friends by the kitchen when other tables are open. And there’s the woman (Jena Malone) whose compliments of Veronica ooze with degrading condescension.
Malone is in the “past” too, perusing the slaves for purchase. And the film comes to reveal (as the trailer does in just a few minutes) that the plantation is neither the past nor a dream, but a very real place where Black people are kidnapped and taken so that white supremacists can “play” at living in the antebellum South, kind of like Westworld but without the pretense of robots.
The machinations of the plot are not subtle and the film seems more interested in showcasing torture rather than illuminating the racism that lives on today.
Monae said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that most films about racism are white savior films - even some that she’s been part of. It is a failing of cinema and storytelling when an experience is only shown through a certain lens that helps absolve and even make the oppressors feel good. “Antebellum” is supposed to be a rebuke to that. But it just doesn’t come close to delivering on all its big ideas, despite Monae’s powerful performance. The movie is strongest in the modern setting and full of cliches on the plantation.
And this is fine. Part of leveling the playing field is allowing for failure from all areas. Besides, a big swing and a miss is always more interesting than a safe approach.
In the end, “Antebellum” will inspire conversation, just probably not the one the filmmakers anticipated.
Monae says she “felt so much rage and anger” when she stepped onto a former slave plantation for the first time to film the psychological thriller “Antebellum.”
In the movie, set for release Friday, the pop star and actress plays a successful modern-day author that finds herself trapped in alternate time periods, including the terrifying reality of a runaway slave. Remembering the moment she arrived on that plantation set, she becomes visibly emotional.
“My ancestors were stolen. They didn’t steal slaves or servants. They stole doctors. They stole lawyers. They stole musicians. They stole mothers, fathers. Humans that mattered,” she said.
“Antebellum,” a Lionsgate release, is rated R by the
Motion Picture Association of America for “disturbing violent content, language, and sexual references.” Running time: 105 minutes. Two stars out of four.
Much of the horror of “Antebellum” is in its unflinching depiction of the violence inflicted on slaves. Monae hopes the film acts as a catalyst for discussions about systemic racism in a politically divided nation. She says it’s essential to “confront the pain” of the past in order to understand the present state of Black Americans - and address police brutality and social injustice.
“You cannot talk about the present and everything we’re dealing with the police without knowing the past and understanding that in the South during the Civil War that the first police institution was the same slave patrol meant to control, meant to monitor free slaves, meant to kill, meant to discriminate against free slaves,” Monae said.
The movie grew out of a literal nightmare that Bush had after his father died. He awoke remembering “this woman, Eden, that was screaming desperately for help that felt like cross-dimensional in a sense.”
“I was really emotional from the experience. And I took out my notepad and took all of the notes from the nightmare,” Bush said.
Bush and Renz say they used 1970s horror films as inspiration. They hope to unsettle audiences when depicting terrors of the pre-abolition South. The Oscarwinning 1939 film “Gone With the Wind” became a touchstone. Bush describes it as both a “horror film” and “a piece of really effective propaganda.”
“We went so far as to obtain the lenses from ‘Gone with the Wind’ to shoot our movie so that we could take that same weaponry that was intended to misinform, to correct the record,” Bush said.
In addition to Monae, the cast also includes Jack Huston, Eric Lange, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe and Jena Malone.
Like many films this year, the pandemic has led to multiple delays in releasing “Antebellum.” Bush notes the significance of the settled final date: “We didn’t do it deliberately. But it just so happens that the date of September 18th is the anniversary of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850,” he said.
Bush said he realizes that audiences will be uncomfortable watching the film, but he believes that unsettling times calls for unsettling art. (AP)