dir: Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
Antebellum means ‘before the war’ in Latin, and it could mean before any war, but because Americans are Americans, antebellum is generally used to mean “before the Civil War”, like, for the losing side, meaning “weren’t things great before the Civil War?”
They weren’t, not at all, for too many, but for some people the struggle never ends. In this movie, we watch as a bunch of awful people imprison, torture and kill African-Americans, with the intention of proving their supremacy over them, based on skin colour alone.
But, you know, based on actual behaviour and lack of humanity, how is this superior to anything or anyone?
Janelle Monáe plays the lead character, and is in pretty much every scene. She carries the entire weight and freight of the film, for good and for ill. It’s a lot to carry.
She’s better known as a singer and crazily talented creator, but she’s put in some solid performances over the last few years, and she does well here with a very difficult role. A role that one wishes she didn’t have to take.
In the first 40 minutes of the film, we see life, brutal life, on a plantation. A woman is brutalised, and then killed. Southern gentlemen in the uniform of the Confederacy are the ones brutalising the slaves. A woman (Monáe) is told to respond to the name given her, and refuses, and is branded, with the initials BD.
For forty minutes this keeps up. There aren’t many details that give the game away. One of the slaves had a nose ring, a septum piercing. The slaves are made to pick cotton, at gunpoint, and then the cotton is burned. No-one gives the game away through speaking, but it should be pretty fucking obvious to anyone, no matter how little they know about the film, that this is not actually the South before or during the Civil War.
Of course the sounds of war persist in the distance, but we are told that the South is winning, and the cowardly North will soon be vanquished, so these awful people will get to continue their awful ways presumably for ever and ever.
And then the woman wakes up, from hearing the sound of a mobile phone ringing, and it’s some time in the very present present. She does not go by the name given on the plantation, but as Dr Veronica Henley, a doctor of sociology, and writer of scholarly books looking at the personae the oppressed create to survive in the face of societal oppression, the effects of trauma inter-generationally, and all the sorts of issues surrounding inclusion and diversity that make conservatives grind their teeth with rage whenever they hear about them.
She has to get ready for some flight to give a speech somewhere promoting her book. She also somehow been dragged into a Zoom call with a woman who looks a lot like the vile overseer on the plantation (Jena Malone, who has played some evil people in the past, who is beyond evil here), who cannot hide either her malice or her resentment towards Veronica during the call. Something is most definitely up, because we know what’s likely to happen to Veronica, but she doesn’t know, so when the awful woman sends her a bouquet of picked cotton, with a note expressing how much she’s looking forward to seeing her once she comes “home”, Veronica is just confused, not concerned.
We know what’s coming. It’s kind of dreadful, waiting for it to happen. Still, it seems like she has a fun night out with some gal pals before she gets violently kidnapped. One of her friends, called Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe), is the exact opposite of the polite, accommodating persona that Veronica embodies, as she, over the course of this strange day, is treated like shit by the various service industry people that are meant to be helping her. She takes it with the roll of her eyes and a sigh, whereas Dawn demands to be heard and demands that her desires be taken seriously, thanks for asking. For Veronica it’s the so-called micro-aggressions of the concierge at the hotel, the maitre’ d, the waiter who tells them they probably want prosecco when they ask for champagne; all these various people not connected to the malevolent conspiracy about to drop on Veronica, but just a broad, dumb part of the world that she has to navigate through even when bloodthirsty white supremacists aren’t after her.
It is because she is successful, because she is forthright that she is singled out by these clingers to the past. She is selected to be made an example of by the person who ultimately is the architect of this diabolical scheme; that for all her education and achievement, by dint of her race, she needs must be brought down, in order to raise the white man up again to where he thought he belonged.
It might seem like a strange genre for such a story to reside within, but it’s most definitely a horror story. Any time a person wakes up where they have no reason being, trapped against their will and tormented, raped and brutalised, it’s most definitely a horror story, whether the perpetrators are wearing period-accurate costumes or not. The real horror is not just the acts committed by these vile people, but the mentality that itches behind it, the blanket urge to cast others down in order to feel that America has been made great again, but only for the select white few.
None of this is particularly subtle, but one could make the argument that the allegorical aspects of the movie are far more important than a) practicality or b) the sheer awful scale of it being believable. There is also something of an issue that Veronica, for whatever reason (other than that she’s played by a star and is the protagonist) gets to have skills and agency that no-one else on the plantation seems to possess. Almost none of the other captives get to live and breath, I guess you can argue they aren’t given the chance by their oppressors, but they don’t even seem to struggle or wonder whether to fight back or bide their time for escape or revenge or both.
The ending manages to wrap itself up in a way that would be satisfying at the end of a dumber action flick, as the terror of being caught while trying to escape somewhat gives way to the cathartic pleasure, if pleasure is the word I’m looking for, and it isn’t, of seeing Veronica get revenge on various people. It does end up requiring a lot of stupidity both on the part of the antagonists and on the screenplay to get us where it wants to be. But the final irony of the build up to Veronica’s attempt to escape from her circumstances really did work for me (and not for very many other viewers, judging by the terrible reviews this has received), because it ties together explicitly the theme with a current reality in the States.
These monuments to the Lost Cause, the statues to Confederate generals who took up arms in treason against their own country in order to preserve the institutional horror of slavery, and these recreationist wartime funparks for the great unwashed, are deeply connected to the ill-intent that still lurks within the hearts of too many, be they shit kickers in pick-up trucks or presidents. These people who speak of maintaining their heritage, who speak of that flag and those monuments as being nothing to be ashamed of, are speaking their heart’s true desire to make things like what they once were. And I would argue that Antebellum makes a fairly convincing statement that part of deconstructing that mentality requires, if not demands, the destruction of these monuments to racist hate.
And it is racism, let’s not quibble about it that seeks to hold on to these vestiges, but at the same time, I do have to be honest and admit that most of the reviews of this flick that I’ve read thus far, by an extraordinary margin the most scathing reviews are from African-American reviewers. There are elements of this flick that don’t impact me in the same way, and I am the first to admit that my reactions to seeing this flick mean I’m coming from a very different place to which other viewers of colour are potentially going to come from. The horrors of slavery in an artistic form are going to impact differently upon me as opposed to someone else with a different history. I can also see on some levels how something like this almost, kinda, sorta, can’t really be made. You can’t imagine a German flick of a similar intent trying to work similar ‘magic’ with a contemporary Jewish character waking up in a recreated concentration camp, oh boy, no, that’s a bridge too far.
At first I thought the two screenwriters and co-directors might have stepped over too much of a line, but Gerard Bush at least is African-American, and the story’s origin, at least for him, is from a nightmare he once had that struck him as a brilliant idea for a short story or movie. Well, he was half right, maybe. The contrived nature of the “twist” means it’s not really a twist at all, and fundamentally, as much as I understand that there are plenty of white supremacists in the States who wish ill towards virtually anyone that doesn’t look like them, the lengths they go to here seem… awfully strained. I understand they want to kill them, but I can’t really grasp that many of them would also like to live back in the days of pantaloons and handpicking cotton just for the fuck of it. It would require too much dedication, too much thought, too much effort, when all they would need to do instead to get the same rush of feelings is attend a Trump rally.
Also, not that I’m giving these hypothetical villains too much credit, but creating such a horrible place doesn’t prove the inferiority of anyone other than the one’s running it and participating in its horrors. Even that wouldn’t be lost on these fuckheads.
All the same, I wish Veronica had killed them all.
6 times there are some woeful moments in this script to delay the inevitable, but there are some pretty shots, especially at the end when she single-handedly beats the Confederacy out of 10
“The past is never dead. It's not even past” – yeah, well if William Faulkner is so right and so smart, why is he dead? - Antebellum