Antebellum is one of those movies that feels like it was crafted to make itself bulletproof against criticism. The topics it wants to touch on – the racist history and foundations of America and how that racism still influences our modern culture – are ones that are practically inarguable to anyone with a modicum of historical and social intelligence. So, if you agree with the movie’s message, the film assumes you approve of the movie itself.
But, much like The Hunt from earlier this year or Black Christmas from 2019, Antebellum is unaware that its genre trappings could allow it to wield its commentary with some finesse. Instead, the movie acts as a bludgeon that continually wants to remind you that racism is bad and an inherent part of America. That’s an easy enough thing to grasp if you simply look at the state of the world. What’s disappointing is that is the only thing Antebellum seems to have on its mind.
However, that might be an acceptable place to grow from if you complicate your story with complex characters and interesting plotting. Jordan Peele’s Get Out wasn’t just a game-changer because it decided to tackle these kinds of issues. It wove together a tapestry of complexity through its character, story, and premise that led to an incredibly deep and rewarding experience. Antebellum has none of those elements.
Well, it should be noted that writers/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz can shoot a good-looking movie. There is nothing wrong with their filmmaking instincts – the movie even opens with a truly impressive tracking shot – but herein lies another issue with Antebellum. So much of the movie centers around the brutality Black people endured during the era of Confederate supremacy, but Bush and Renz shoot these moments like they are making a sexy music video. It turns any attempt at horror into something that feels near pornographic. Hard to get on board with your movie condemning racial violence when you film a slave execution as gorgeously as this:
What really sinks Antebellum is its dependence on glib buzzwords and vocabulary to make its point. You’ll hear characters openly say things like “triggered”, “cuck”, and “snowflake” and they are said with 100% earnestness. There is no attempt at satire in these moments. It makes the commentary feel incredibly po-faced and without a greater contextual awareness. There is also the likelihood that it will immediately date the film and crush any chance of its longevity. The most egregious and offensive of these moments is when a group of Confederate soldiers marches with torches and chant, “Blood and soil,” drawing a direct but unearned parallel with the Unite the Right rally from 2017. the movie just wants to drop these things in without actually picking them apart.
This is all made doubly disheartening when you look at the excellent case assembled in Antebellum. Everyone is doing what they can but the material they are given is full of lazy tropes, stereotypes, and weak development. Janelle Monáe is more than up to the task of acting under well-worn slave torture scenes, but when we get to learn more about her character, it does not ass the necessary complexity or depth that is needed to endear her as a human being. Her existence is defined only by her suffering, even if the movie tries to say otherwise.
That is the biggest takeaway from Antebellum: execution can completely undermine your intention. By shooting everything with such beautiful photography and holding on shots through slow motion, the desire to portray awfulness is mutated into something akin to admiration. Part of the reason the “torture porn” subgenre of horror was effective in movies like Saw and Hostel was that the filmmaking met the material on its own level. That doesn’t mean the filmmaking was bad – both movies are wonderfully shot – but rather that the filmmaking complimented the subject matter. Antebellum‘s filmmaking clashes so directly with its subject matter at every turn.
For all the assembled talent and potentially intriguing story – the twist of the movie is a lazy and uninteresting one – Antebellum is a slick production with the brains of a student film. Now, student films are important for figuring out yourself as a filmmaker, but they often deal with or execute material that is way above their ability. Antebellum is not equipped to deal with the ideas it wants to examine. It wields itself with excruciating bluntness and never figures out a way to tell a compelling story with fascinating characters.
Antebellum reminds me of the old Chappelle’s Show sketch, “When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong”. In these sketches, individuals who want to stay truthful to their own feelings end up only making things worse for themselves by their behavior. That is what Antebellum has gotten itself into with its finished product. It is unfortunate to see this happen especially when a show like Lovecraft Country is tackling similar topics with much better results. If things stay the way they are, Antebellum will go down as one of the most disappointing movies of the year.