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Issue 17 Out Now

The Problem with Antebellum: Another Slave Movie…

What was the reason?

Released in September of 2020 on video services and in select theaters, Antebellum was the hyped-up movie starring Janelle Monáe. Many were excited for the feature, including me because of the horror take they displayed in the trailer. People were left intrigued by the mixing of horror and sci-fi because of the expected time travel. However, the movie was disappointing for many. The film scored very low on critic sites with 28% on Rotten Tomatoes, 5.6/10 on IMDb, and 45% on Metacritic. So, what was the issue with the film that made it such a bomb?

The plot is the answer for many. As for many movies like this, the plot revolves around black people being beaten and mistreated by white people. In Antebellum, the first 40 minutes of the film are nothing but scenes of slaves being dehumanized through rape, murder, and branding. The first scene is a beautiful tracking shot of a plantation. Then, in slow motion, a female slave is seen running away. She is stopped by a rope wrapping around her neck like an animal. She is then shot, killed, and cremated. Eden, played by Janelle Monáe, is another slave seen as the leader who plans the escapes. She is of course included in these 40 minutes of torture, but the film takes a shift after Eden is raped by a general. Laying in bed, she suddenly hears a cell phone, and the scene shifts from Eden as a slave to Eden as Veronica Henley, a successful sociologist, wife, and mother. This take on “time” shifting is interesting and caught my attention.

We see Veronica go about her happy life, giving talks at a conference and spending time with girlfriends. But after being kidnapped, we realize that the film isn’t parallels to two eras like expected, it’s the same era. Veronica was kidnapped and taken to a plantation where she was stripped of her identity and put into modern slavery. Later, we learn that the plantation sits way in the back of a Civil War reenactment center. I thought this take was quite compelling. Modern slavery showing the proximity from our current time to the past and how it isn’t necessarily that different. It makes us question certain things, like why do Civil War reenactments even happen. What is the point in having modern people act as soldiers from such a horrific time of hate and murder? It’s not like people can’t learn about the Civil War through books and the internet.

Although the film is set in the same era, it’s interesting to see the blatant racism and mistreatment against black people from the plantation perspective and then to the more modern perspective through Veronica. Being a sociologist with a popular book, she speaks about these issues regarding the black community in society. I find that the writers, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, have some good points in the film, but some things still lack.

Antebellum is an artistic failure of two directors whose goals supersede their ability to meet them, festering with not only aesthetic and narrative failures but moral ones too: It implicitly argues that depictions of suffering are the best means of understanding what it means to be Black in America — Angelica Jade Bastién

The shift comes out of nowhere. I feel that they could’ve spent more time on Veronica’s perspective. Through Veronica’s kidnapping and the other slaves on the plantation, we know that there have been countless kidnappings. Yet, they are not mentioned at all in the film. Not even shots of a news broadcasting of missing persons. We also don’t learn anything about the other characters and there is no real character development. The reasoning behind the reeanctors doing these horrible things is shallow. To “sustain themselves as the superior race”. If that’s the case then why not kidnap more black people than just the 10–15 you seem to have and have multiple plantations? That isn’t a deep enough reason to create such an immense scheme that requires these reeanctors to go in and out of society to kidnap black people. Even with having an interesting premise of modern slavery, the reasoning behind it completely falters. There’s also the point of how no one is aware that these things are happening on the plantation, especially because Veronica’s character is basically a celebrity. Things like these leave the viewer with many questions that’ll either leave them disappointed or watch the movie again.

Personally, some things can be discovered through this film and it points out important things, but the narrative itself is weak. Some things could’ve been done differently to make it better. The film spent 30 plus minutes setting up Eden’s story then 30 plus minutes setting up Veronica’s story, which left barely any time for other development and such. I also feel that the film and the directors were coming from a condescendingly woke perspective because of the dialogue.

Also, if the film was going to take this shift anyway, what was the point in spending so much time displaying black torture and pain? I understand they wanted to spend some time setting the scene and tone and not wanting to jump straight into the “current time”, but 40 minutes is exceedingly long. Not only is it unnecessary to watch slave porn, but it takes almost an hour for the film to kickoff. The film can be very triggering for black audiences as well. We also must think of the black actors who star in these roles. Although no one is forcing them, I’m sure it can be triggering to live through their ancestor’s trauma, which in return can create trauma for them as well. Especially in the political climate we are in currently with black men’s deaths being broadcasted like every month. There could’ve been a different way of setting the scene that wouldn’t basically beat a dead horse.

Is the whole point of these movies supposed to make others feel sympathetic towards black people? Why is it that the only way for people to recognize the black community’s pain is through slavery and the 60s? Why can’t there be a film that is set in current times of racism, like microaggressions, wage gaps, and redlining? These things tend to be pointed out in black films that were created by black people. Some slave movies tend to be created and directed by white people. What is the point in creating the same film over and over again? Why is the black community only shown in times of struggle? Who wants to repeatedly watch movies of black people being dehumanized? Certainly not the black community.

I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story. When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed “important” and “good” by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient — Kara Brown



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