By Andrea Thompson
This movie should not be this bad this movie should not be this bad this movie should not be this bad this movie should not be this bad this movie should not be this bad this movie should not be this bad this movie should not be this bad this movie should not be this bad this movie should not be this bad
Forgive my attack of insanity. But I have seldom seen a film that knows how to do so many things so well…except for what it’s trying to do most. “Antebellum” opens exquisitely, on a southern plantation we’ve seen so many times before. It’s quite actually clever in how it shows us exactly why we return to such settings, which in many ways contain such beauty.
It’s not exactly a new approach, yet it still couldn’t be called common, in film at least. In Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” Sethe recalls Sweet Home, the farm that birthed such horrors, marveling at how such things could coexist. “It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too.” The setting in “Antebellum” seduces in much the same way. Just try not to appreciate the beautifully lush landscape, especially when it comes with an adorable little white child in a yellow dress bringing flowers to a mother who is all smiles and benevolence as she gazes down at her in 19th century clothing which seems perfectly suited to a time and place that seems to cradle them in a gentle embrace.
Then “Antebellum” turns its gaze deeper, or rather, just past them, to the soldiers, and to those they and these supposedly beatific inhabitants have absolute power over, the enslaved who make the comfort we’ve just seen possible. It’s also the beginning of many dashed hopes, since things pretty much start going downhill after that. But we’ll always have those two minutes.
“Antebellum” is clearly trying to make a point about how slavery’s violent, brutal past is lurking around every corner in our so-called enlightened, modern world. If only it showed any interest, any at all, in delving deep and exploring just how shockingly adaptable hatred can be as it continues to dehumanize and twist our perceptions of each other. But “Antebellum” would rather inflict brutality after brutality on Black bodies to prove its point, especially on Eden (Janelle Monáe) after her attempt to escape fails.
Monáe has done (and continues to do) fantastic work as one of our great modern artists before she branched out into acting, resulting in some truly incredible performances, such as on the series “Homecoming” and other excellent, mainly supporting roles in films as wide-ranging as “Moonlight,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Harriet.” She deserves better than the thankless one she has here, where suffering upon suffering is inflicted on her, as if we needed it to realize the horrors of slavery.
If there is any redemptive quality in “Antebellum,” it’s due to Monáe’s awe-inspiring skills as an actress, which are on full display as the camera lingers on her endlessly expressive face, not the violence itself, so we at least feel her pain throughout the entirety of the movie’s runtime of ill-advised (to say the least) choices, which includes branding, miscarriages, burnings, rapes, shootings, and other aggressions she and various Black characters suffer.
Even when the twist is revealed, and we see just what the connection is between Eden and her modern counterpart Veronica Henley, who is an extremely successful author with a loving husband and young daughter, it only makes the movie’s flaws that more apparent. And baffling. A good premise doesn’t necessarily have to be plausible to be horrific, as “Get Out” proved. But since “Antebellum” has only shown us the consequences of its scenario, with no true connection to our modern world, there’s no real emotional grounds for horror, resulting in the same lack of empathy it accuses the various white villains of.
Said villains, the most notable of which is Jena Malone as a white feminist from hell, are also given no depth or exploration whatsoever, leaving us to hate them for the evil they inflict while ironically reassuring white audiences how safely removed they are from such deeds. Malone’s would be laughable if she didn’t channel pure viciousness so well, even as she’s saddled with a cartoonish southern accent and predictably icy persona. This has long since ceased to be edgy, given that we’ve been forced to acknowledge how white women weaponize their privilege on behalf of white supremacy. It’s surely no accident that as the villains begin to be punished, the most sadistic is reserved for Malone. Not that it even compares to what Monáe has had to endure.
When the dust has settled, there is likewise no hint of the greater conspiracy/movement that the movie has hinted at, and we only get the comfort that such cruelty has at least ceased…for now at least. What another, final letdown for a movie that clearly seeks to hold us, and history itself, accountable.