Halloween Month Review: Antebellum (2020)
Updated: Oct 30, 2020
Do we need Plantation Porn to remind us of Slavery?
It could be the slow motion, a perennial shelter for filmmakers with a paucity of visual style, or it could be how ill-suited its here, or maybe the slight awkwardness of the staging, but the opening 8-minute shot of Antebellum, depicting the brutality of a slave-era plantation, unwittingly becomes (and makes us) a participant in the cruelty on display.
Only that we do not share the filmmakers' glee.
While the oddly unconvincing nature of the plantation here can be explained by the 'twist' (everyone has seen the trailer, thank you), nothing can explain the thin characterization and the ignorance on display. Not to mention, the film's erroneous marketing as a "horror film".
We meet Eden (Janelle Monae) being brought back from her attempt to escape the said plantation. One of the friends she was running with has been shot.
Later, Eden is beaten with a belt and branded after refusing to say her slave name aloud. Significantly, all of this happens before we, as the audience know her real name. She is sans personality or a name for us, just like her torturers want her to be. This is just one of the small, ignorant ways that the director duo snatches the characters here of their dignity. She, and the rest of the film, is just assembly-line products, hoping that their protestations at 'importance' will stick. Instead, the film shows at every turn, that its main aim is to milk the success of the excellent Get Out (and its follow up Us).
Get Out broadened the arguments on racism as it is perceived in America, or at least in mainstream cinema. It brought forth the notion of how even the Liberals are capable of as much bigotry as the Reds. It was a terrifying vision that showed how once joining the infamous club of one-percenters demolishes ideologies and how owning slaves is (probably) a secret yet teeming fantasy of white America.
Antebellum makes no such (or any) statements because everyone here is a cipher for the plot and structure mechanics.
The only other person that Eden communicates with is Eli (Tongayi Chirisa), a "professor" who believes that only Eden can take them out of this place. Because we have only seen the hero he has pinned his hopes on suffering till now, this faith is curiously bizarre.
Later, a new addition to the plantation, Julia (Kiersey Clemons) also visits Eden to ask her help to escape. The filmmakers again fail to convey why someone would think this. Especially now when Eden herself was caught escaping and her fellow escapee was shot dead. Her success rate does not inspire optimism.
After losing her child because of a kick by a horny soldier who quickly loses it because she starts to talk to him without being addressed first, Julia hangs herself.
She has served her purpose, you see.
Julia, like Eli, who will also die saving Eden, was just a plot point to push Eden into taking action. And because the structure of the film dictates that there should be nothing revealed about this character before, these two just serve us to convince that 'she is the one'.
Based on the quickness at which the rest of the Black characters are either dispatched, are not given any lines or personality, and just exist to serve Eden, I propose, she is actually a white person who happens to be Black. This aspect of the film plays like an Edward Zwick script hastily re-worked into something more marketable for today.
Eden, by the way, is also Veronica Hanley, PhD., a famous and important author with a cute family and reliable friends.
A brief change of gear brings us to the contemporary world and re-introduces us to Eden as Veronika before she is kidnapped by the creepy Elizabeth (Jena Malone). Here she is this super-successful Black woman who has it all, and then some.
In this short segment, Veronica manages to castigate a racist white politician on TV as her family (and herself) look appreciatively, travels to another city for a book signing where she gives rousing lectures on race (where the Black women in the audience listen to her drivel with rapt attention and groveling admiration as if they have never heard any arguments against racism before this). This leaves her just enough time to go out with her friends Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe, clearly having a lot of fun and how can a film like this be complete without a funny Black character?) and Sarah (Lily Cowles).
Pitch- perfect, that's our Veronica. So unlike Eden.
"This is where the penny will drop for the audience! They will look on stunned with a dawning realization: This is the same person!", the writer thought, not anticipating the trailer.
Oh, there is also the modern iteration of the guy we saw as Confederate Captain Jesper (Jack Huston, to whom Bush and Renz, the directors, seem to have given only one tip: "just act evil!") and a weird little girl about whom I don't even want to write about.
If all of this sounds like a mess, then you guess it right. It is. Though in hindsight, many things can be solved here by a simple fix: Just play the story chronologically.
This way we will know Veronika as who she really is (however incompetently that is portrayed) and will feel her loss, the horror and suspense elements will automatically be enhanced with the growing dread. Oh, and also, Veronika and Dawn's discussion of Faulkner's quote about the past not being the past will actually carry some weight, despite the actual text appearing on screen at the opening.
I guess, and this is pure conjecture, what happened was that someone gave the directors feedback that the script sounds too much like 12 Years A Slave and they thought shuffling the segments will not only get rid of that reference but also prove how bold and brilliant they are.
Somehow, the rest of the characters, black or white, fare even worse here. There are all ciphers to re-enact a 'clever' costume drama in a film that is ironically a criticism about white supremacists re-enacting the plantation days. The stupidity of the rules of this place becomes sharply clear towards the end where the villains are so much into this "game" that they would rather risk exposure and arrest than cross over their limits.
Monae is good but the script does not require her to dig deep. The only person who makes an impression is Jena Malone's Southern villain. In her few scenes she encompasses the banality of evil and a sense of misplaced, simmering anger that white folks like these seem to carry around. Towards the end, even she is undone due to the script, though. As she is required to explain everything perched on a horse. It is that same old cliched scene where the villain explains themselves and their plans before being taken over by the hero (Surprise, surprise.)
In summation I would like to give a message to Hollywood: We don't need plantation porn to know that slavery is a blot on history. Not that this film is especially gory, but the context that the violence and dehumanization take place should be approached only if you have something to add. Yes, we all need reminders, but the headlines today are more than enough to show how much things have changed (or not). The worst anyone can do is to use history like this for genre thrills. Antebellum fails not just as a political statement but also as a horror film.
The film climaxes with Veronica running towards her freedom in the same slow motion which started it.
In a more aware film, the idea of a Black person escaping danger towards oncoming police cars with an ax should have been terrifying in today's context of police killings.
In Antebellum, it comes as a pat resolution.