In a year that saw the Black Lives Matter movement gain momentum and strength like never before, you’d think that an anti-racism horror film like ANTEBELLUM would be a fitting 2020 release. Instead, this entry feels entirely wrong, antiquated in how it presents its main subject of slavery and exploitative in the way it dwells on the violence associated with it. I’m sure the filmmakers meant well, hoping for something in the vein of Jordan Peele’s GET OUT and US, but their effort here comes off as endlessly vicious and demeaning. The film ends up as a misjudged amalgam of horror and history, stumbling over its themes of the black experience and female empowerment, and ending up cringe-worthy to watch from its first moment to last.
The film falters immediately as writers/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz start with a virtuoso Steadicam shot that weaves around a Civil War-era plantation. It’s an incredible tracking shot, filmed with honeyed lighting, but the tragedy of slaves working the fields while confederate soldiers watch over them feels utterly ugly. Yes, it’s intended to be ironic, but the slow-motion cinematography gives it a romanticism that feels wholly unsavory. If the point of the material is to showcase how ugly life was then filmmakers shouldn’t lens it like it’s a sunny, life insurance commercial.
Ultimately, that self-conscious tracking shot goes on for almost eight minutes and finally ends up on three slaves who’ve tried to escape. One of the slaves is Eden (Janelle Monae), bloodied and beaten, tossed over the back of a horse. The other two are a married couple: Eli (Tongayi Chris) struggling against soldiers jerking him around in a collar chain, and Amara (Achok Majak), battling a rope around her neck. As the vicious Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) taunts her, she begs him to shoot her dead rather than be tortured. He complies and it’s heartbreaking. But then such brutality keeps repeating itself over and over again for virtually the entire first hour of the story with the filmmakers dwelling on it far too much. Very often, it feels more like HOSTEL than 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
As the narrative lurches forward, the filmmakers trot out creepy, racist wives and children, a smokehouse used to burn runaway slaves to death, and a cadre of slaves afraid to speak for fear of such retribution. Eden is also visited nightly by a confederate general (Eric Lange) who not only rapes her but whips her for refusing to say her name. (The limits of the film’s script show up early as Bush and Renz replicate the 1977 ROOTS miniseries scene where Kunta Kinte was whipped for refusing to accept his slave name of Toby without adding anything new to such a narrative.) All of this is shown as graphic violence with little nuance and an absence of layering. It’s vivid barbarity, not much else.
A full hour in, the film finally jolts out of this numbing narrative to suddenly find Monae playing a modern-day character named Dr. Veronica Henley. Was all this a dream? Some form of reincarnation? The film plays coy for another half hour but lays on thick how different this version of life is compared to Eden’s. Veronica has a doting husband, adorable daughter, a huge home, and a flourishing career as a Ph.D. debating bigots on cable news as a pundit. Soon, Veronica will fly to San Francisco, stay at a tony hotel, and the two stories will finally merge in a big rug pull that feels like a leftover bit from an M. Night Shyamalan movie. It’s a long way to go for a twist that feels outdated, maybe even glib, considering the more modern forms of racism playing out daily this election cycle as the president plays his shameful cards during a faltering Republican campaign.
Even the modern scenes, showcasing the glamorous life of Veronica, feel equally heavy-handed as all that’s gone before it. She and her friends (Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles) spout a lot of verbiage about sisterhood and bigotry that is so on-the-nose it feels like a rough first draft. And the modern female villain character played by Jena Malone feels like a character that Samantha Bee would lampoon on her FULL FRONTAL show. Such a cartoonish baddie doesn’t belong in a film striving to make a modern parable about slavery feel palpable.
As good as much of 12 YEARS A SLAVE was seven years ago when it won Oscar’s Best Picture, a lot of its presentation of plantation life felt too easy then as well. That’s even truer today considering the breakthroughs on the big and small screen that are showcasing far fresher stories of the racial divide in works like MOONLIGHT and WATCHMEN. Even period pieces like HIDDEN FIGURES and DOLEMITE IS MY NAME gave us more complex narratives than ANTEBELLUM does. And those films did it without all the excessive violence that feels more and more gratuitous the longer this one grinds on.
ANTEBELLUM, despite good intentions and Monae’s full-throttled commitment to the material, feels arch, shallow, and forced. It plays less like a horror movie and more like a one-note idea for a TWILIGHT ZONE episode. And in the era of the Black Lives Matter protests galvanizing the nation, the easy critiques of plantation life centuries ago don’t add nearly enough relevance to the current conversation America is having about race. And as a film, it feels like torture porn for those onscreen as well as those in the audience.