Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz open their horror debut feature Antebellum with an eight-minute immersive shot that brutally subjugates both the audience and the characters. It starts with a little white girl in a yellow dress, skipping through a lush field toward a white plantation house. While Nate Wonder and Roman Gianarthur’s unnervingly uptempo string score struts away, the camera tracks past Confederate soldiers raising the stars and bars, then to wooden rows of slave quarters. The images juxtapose the seemingly idyllic sun-soaked plantation with the forlorn incarceration of slavery.
A Black man in a slave collar screams as grey-coated men hold him at bay. In slow motion, a captain rides on horseback after a fleeing Black woman, loops a noose around her neck, and violently whips her to the ground. Dehumanized and drenched in fear, she crawls on all fours through the dirt. It’s a heart-wrenchingly intimate sequence where the difference between the sweat and tears on her face are cruelly clear. Antebellum is an unrepentantly violent film, and this entire sequence shows how it falsely equates shock value with empathy.
For nearly 80 years, slave narratives like Antebellum dominated Black-starring prestige cinema. From Gone With the Wind to Harriet, pre-Civil War stories received a compendium of Academy Award nominations, not just due to their quality, but the Academy’s demonstrable love of the gravity that miserablist stories offer. 2013’s 12 Years a Slave even won Best Picture.
But recently, as the Black cinematic renaissance has made new African-American narratives possible, movies centering on Black trauma have come under fire. For instance, Queen & Slim caused controversy due to the graphic nature of its ending. Cynthia Erivo’s Best Actress nomination for 2019’s Harriet rankled film fans because it was the only Black acting nomination in a year featuring astounding performances from Lupita Nyong’o in Us, Alfre Woodard’s Clemency, and Eddie Murphy’s Dolemite Is My Name. As Jeremy Helligar explains at The Wrap, “when it comes to black actors and Oscar nominations, the Academy seems to prefer black characters in chains or bursting out of them.”
The questions surrounding Black trauma have gained greater complexity during a summer of Black Lives Matter and the tragic deaths of African-Americans by cops. A slew of think pieces have explained the emotional toll Black viewers experience when viewing Black deaths captured via police body-cam and cellphone footage. Produced by Jordan Peele’s collaborators Raymond Mansfield and Sean McKittrick, Antebellum arrives on PVOD with the tagline “from the creators of Get Out and Us.” If only their horror film came close to the heights Peele’s masterworks attained when connecting current Black oppression with its systematic causes. Though the filmmakers hoped to balance the historical atrocities of slavery with contemporary racial oppression, Antebellum — yet another unnecessary slave movie — rarely feels like a horror flick. Instead, its needless brutality, ropy character work, and misguided twist make it easily 2020’s worst movie so far.
Bush and Renz obtusely resign Antebellum’s first act to unmitigated violence. After the opening tracking shot, in a scene right out of Roots, a confederate general (Eric Lange) mercilessly whips Eden (Janelle Monáe) with a belt for an isolated refusal to say her slave name. Her screams and the sounds of slashes across her back make it apparent that Bush and Renz want to represent slavery as brutally as possible. While they may be aiming for authenticity, the violence feels gratuitous. Audiences in 2020 don’t require proof that slavery was inhumane, but the directors are intent on providing it anyway.
The plantation Eden occupies is a base camp for the Confederate Army. When picking cotton in the field, slaves mustn’t speak unless spoken to, and require permission from a white master if they wish to talk among themselves. That means Monáe is relegated to silence through much of the film. There are few supporting Black characters, other than Eli (Tongayi Chirisa), who desperately tries to persuade Eden to escape, and the pregnant but forceful Julia (Kiersey Clemons). And Bush and Renz’s script does little to build them out: they’re only meant as physical and emotional punching bags.
For instance, when Eli calls Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) a cracker under his breath, he’s ordered to clean the tiny crematorium where the plantation burns the bodies of runaway slaves. A scene featuring a near-rape of Julia moves from zero to a hundred in a blink, with violence that doesn’t further the story or reveal more about her character — it’s just more exploitative piling-on of lurid misery.
Nothing in the second act, which arrives through a kitschy musical jingle, is any subtler than act 1. In contemporary America, Veronica Henley (also Monáe) is a successful Ph.D. sociologist and bestselling author. Mother to a young daughter, Kennedi (London Boyce), and wife to Nick (Marque Richardson), she regularly appears on cable news, and tours the country promoting her book, Shedding the Coping Persona. The images surrounding her as character elements — her black-and-beige painting of a crowned Black woman, the stock photo of Barack Obama hanging above her Columbia University degree — are cheap, shallow signifers. For example, in one of her television appearances, Veronica explains, “This vicious cycle of inequity will soon be broken.” Like Antebellum itself, her messages are banal drivel that means nothing upon closer inspection.
Before departing on her next trip, she speaks by webcam with a creepy Southern belle (Jena Malone). Upon arriving at her hotel, she meets her friends Sarah (Lily Cowles) and Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) for a night of reverie. Their glib conversations feature on-the-nose dialogue like “the unresolved past wreaks havoc on the present” and “our ancestors haunt our dreams to see themselves forward.” Tawdry jump-scares, a creepy girl in an elevator, and an ode to The Shining, are the first moments when Antebellum feels like a horror film, rather than a picture of meaningless misery.
Act three reverts back to slavery, drawing the first two acts together. While the trailer teases the idea that Veronica is a successful Black woman yanked backward in time to a plantation by scheming white sorcerers, the twist explaining how she awakens in antebellum America isn’t nearly so interesting. Instead, the reveal turns the film’s entire conceit into a disrespectful, cruel mockery of the history it’s exploiting. In the most heavy-handed way, Bush and Renz equate current racial oppression with the horrific crime of forced servitude, and turns the somber history of slavery into a cruel game. And their film’s seeming body horror is just a masked version of ordinary violence.
In Antebellum, Bush and Renz desperately prod around in the dark, trying to discover the gravity of prestige slave movies like 12 Years a Slave. Slaves whistle “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the cotton fields; one Confederate soldier calls another “snowflake”; grey-coats chant the Nazi refrain “blood and soil”; a statue of Robert E. Lee materializes on a foggy battlefield. The directors evoke these images as symbols, but don’t have the next-level horror-film ability to match symbolism with meaning. The narrative’s metaphorical thud resounds as loudly as the rolling sea.
In one of the movie’s few satisfying moments — and in a lyrically beautiful image — Eden rides a horse while wearing a Union coat and brandishing a battleaxe. She careens through Confederate lines, mouth bloodied and agape. But her uplifting revolution can’t redeem Antebellum’s grotesque wallowing and jangly script. Instead, the scene serves as a milestone for how far Black cinema has come since 12 Years A Slave. Ten years ago, at least by comparison to Amistad, this slave-horror would have sufficed as progress. But in an era of Get Out and Us, with their greater understanding of the fears Black people face in everyday America, Antebellum stalls as a horror film, and fails even greater as a weighty commentary on Black people’s present oppressions.