Arab Times

Hor­rors of slav­ery in ‘An­te­bel­lum’

- By Lind­sey Bahr Entertainment · Filmmaking · Movies · Slavery · Society · William Faulkner · United States of America · Get Out · George H. W. Bush · Janelle Monae · Malone, NY · Westworld · Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. · Motion Picture Association of America · Motion Picture Association · Jena Malone · Gone with the Wind · Jack Huston · Eric Lange · Kiersey Clemons · Gabourey Sidibe

The

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.

Re­buke

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)

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