Antebellum Is So Concerned With Instilling Trauma That It Forgets to Tell a Story
1.5 out 5
In the original ending of Jordan Peele’s 2017 hit horror film Get Out, lead character Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), after escaping the body-snatching white nonsense of the film, was arrested and charged with the murder of several people, seen in jail at the end of the film. That ending was changed to the more uplifting version where, after we see the flash of police lights, it is not the actual po-po, but best friend TSA agent Rod Williams (Lil Rel Howery). The breath of relief followed by joyous laughter that came following that twist was something the whole theater felt. It was the kind of choice that allowed Get Out to be social commentary without being a voyeuristic, uncomfortable, and triggering 104 minutes.
The writers of Antebellum have no sense of that nuance.
**Spoilers for the film Antebellum.**
Janelle Monáe plays Eden/ Veronica Henley, a Black woman who has been kidnapped and taken to a Louisana Confederate “plantation” where slaves who attempt to escape are killed and burned in a crematorium. There are many signs that this movie doesn’t take place in the actual antebellum period, like the fact that there are women with septum piercings and other hints that are not at all subtle.
Opening with a Black woman being shot and lynched is something you’d expect from a movie called Antebellum, but it lacks any of the competence of storytelling to make us feel like it has earned that story. The brutality of slavery, especially in how it affected Black women, is an important story that deserves to be told. Yet, there is something that we need more than just cruelty and violence—not because slavery wasn’t those things, but often, the lives and existence of these enslaved human begins is reduced to being avatars of Black guilt.
More than anything, Antebellum is so in love with its concept that it participates in the dehumanization of every Black character that is not Eden/Veronica, and everyone in the film is just a collection of boring tropes. There is nothing there.
What is even more astounding is the premise itself. Not to say that Get Out was “realistic,” but at least, with body snatching, the person still exists. With Antebellum, they are not only kidnapping and murdering Black people but, in the case of Eden/Veronica, a prominent Black writer and talking head with a husband, child, and friends. The whole operation just seems really reckless and destined for failure.
The film also paints Veronica as somehow special enough to escape, being the one people turn to for plans, but I feel like that paints a really shallow conceptualization of what slavery was and those who managed to escape versus those who didn’t. Yes, there are those like Harriet Tubman who helped many people escape, but that is one extraordinary woman. Many people, who have been lost to time, escaped from slavery, not because they were trained equestrians, but because of their own strength, planning, and just an alignment of situations.
That doesn’t make the people who couldn’t weak.
When the trailers for Antebellum came out, it was compared to Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred. While Kindred is brutal and harrowing, it does not reduce its characters to just their sorrows, and it fosters a tangible connection between enslaved people and their descendants today.
Antebellum is a film attempting to be social commentary so badly that it forgets to be a film, forgets to tell a story, and simply relies on a patchwork of violence to keep audiences engaged.
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