The opening shot of Antebellum is an impressive long take that travels through a plantation setting, highlighting the terrible reality of slavery. This shot sums up everything good and bad about the film. While shot with impressive skill, the scene revels in violence against black people. It is appropriately horrific but ultimately empty and purposeless. I, like a good many people who may watch the film, started the film knowing full well the horrors of slavery. I ended the film with no further understanding, no new revelations of the disgusting nature of racism. Filmmakers who are going to show these kinds of horrors should have a reason. Antebellum seems to have none.
Janelle Monáe stars as Veronica, a woman who appears in the early parts of the film to be living two different lives. In one she is a successful author of Shedding the Coping Persona, a book encouraging Black women to be powerful and vocal. In the other, she is a slave enduring physical abuse and sexual assault. How these two versions of Veronica exist is the film's central twist, which will not be spoiled here. The film's opening quote from Wiliam Faulkner, "The past is never dead, it's not even past" offers up a clue.
Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz are riding the success of Jordan Peele's Get Out here. It is easy to understand why the film was greenlit. Their execution shows promise and talent. Their screenplay is a mess, however. Neither version of Veronica is given much depth. Her author life feels like an idealized vision of Black success. Her life is essentially perfect. Her slave life offers little insight into the building resistance that marks the film's third act. We see her get abused several times but the screenplay never lets us into her inner state. It is rare to see a film focus on a female slave and the sexual assault Black women must have suffered on plantations. The way the rape is presented so casually never yields any exploration of how that sexual trauma might carry into today. The film's structure is so ripe for drawing lines of ancestral trauma to the present day and yet it seems like the filmmakers are oblivious to this. We never get to see Veronica as a sexual assault survivor so why include the sexual assault?
This brings up the biggest issue I had with Antebellum, balance. The film shows us violence and sexual abuse against Black people over and over again. These scenes are often drawn out. Take the opening shot I mentioned. In that scene a female slave is shot in front of her beloved. The scene is shot in slow motion, making sure we feel every moment of the horrific act. When it comes to the catharsis in the third act where some of the white abusers get their comeuppance, the scenes are brief and don't revel in the violence in the same way. This makes the film seem far more interested in showing black bodies being abused than white ones. That imbalance put a bad taste in my mouth. Combine that with the film's shallow theme about how racist violence is still present today and you get a careless film that lacks empathy. It is 2020, a year where all you have to do is turn on the news to understand racial violence is still very much alive in America. Antebellum offers no insight, no further exploration into this theme and given our present time, it has an obligation to.