Ever since we were introduced to ‘The Sunken Place’ in Get Out – a fugue state in which Daniel Kaluuya’s Chris falls into the clutches of his rich, white kidnappers – Black horror has experienced a much-needed renaissance. Jordan Peele’s 2017 masterpiece skilfully combined scares with scathing social commentary in a manner many films have since tried to emulate. One such film is Antebellum. Written and directed by Get Out producers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, it attempts to use slavery as a means to connect the dots between the past and the present. But in addition to barely registering on the fright-o-meter, it is needlessly exploitative and gratuitous, lacking in any nuance.
The story revolves around two Janelle Monáe characters: Eden, an African-American woman on a Louisiana slave plantation where the rules are strict (slaves aren’t allowed to speak until spoken to by their white masters) and the cruelty is frequent. Monáe also plays Veronica Henley, a bestselling author, activist, and TV personality promoting Shedding the Coping Persona, her latest motivational book. Exactly how Eden and Veronica’s lives intersect is slowly revealed, but in a way that is not nearly as clever as Bush and Renz think it is.
But the problems start long before that misguided reveal. The movie opens with a punishingly graphic eight-minute sequence that puts the brutality of slavery front and centre. It’s immediately exhausting for any viewer but it could be forgiven if there was a point to it, and if the filmmakers had something new and meaningful to say. As Antebellum progresses, it becomes clear that they don’t.
Part of the issue is that we barely get to know any of these characters. Eden’s fellow plantation slaves Julia (Kiersey Clemons) and Eli (Tongayi Chirisa) are subjected to physical and emotional abuse by the one-note white supremacist villains played by Jack Huston, Eric Lange and Jena Malone, but apart from that they are given precious little to do. With the focus almost always on plot before character – in a bid to keep the movie’s secrets for as long as possible – even the talented Monáe is left scrabbling around for material to work with.
It doesn’t help that the writing is so shallow and obvious it often dilutes any impact. When Veronica gives speeches promoting her book, they seem more like trite soundbites than inspirational musings. When she goes out to a restaurant with her friends Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) and Sarah (Lily Cowles), the micro-aggressions are laughably on-the-nose. This is to say nothing of the third act twist that makes everything that came before it even worse, and leaves you with more questions than answers.
Looking back at the promising marketing for Antebellum, the final product feels like a missed opportunity. At best it wastes an intriguing premise as well as a talented lead actress in Monáe. But at its worst, it amounts to little more than slavery torture porn. In 2021, you better have a good reason for explicitly showcasing the brutalisation of Black bodies. Antebellum doesn’t have one.
- Director: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
- Starring: Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange, Jena Malone
- Release date: Out now