AntebellumReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/16/20 21:06:57
With the massive critical and commercial success of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2017) and “US” (2019), it should probably not come as a surprise to lean that other filmmakers would also attempt to start a conversation and make a killing at the box office (not necessarily in that order) their own films in which they utilized a horror movie framework as a way of examining America’s undeniable racist past and how those sins of the past have continued to seep into and even flourish today. However, if Peele had any idea a few years ago that his efforts would serve as the presumable inspiration for a garbage fire of a film like “Antebellum,” he might have seriously considered erasing them permanently from his hard drive and begun work on something set in the extended “Keanu” Cinematic Universe. This is a dumb, cruel, repellent and idiotic work that is all the worse because of the inescapable and delusional sense that the writer-director duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz think that they are offering up something profound. If you are currently thinking that “The Hunt” is the stupidest movie to emerge this year to attempt to combine social issues and genre tropes, here is a film that would like you to hold its mint julep for 105 minutes.(Since it is impossible to discuss “Antebellum”—especially in regards to what is wrong with it—without divulging any number of key plot developments, this review is going to be more spoiler-heavy than usual. However, since the trailers and commercials give away most of them on their own, I’m not so sure it makes much of a difference.)
The film opens on an extended shot of a seemingly bucolic Civil War-era southern plantation that takes us from the vision of flower-strewn, sun-dappled loveliness out front to the hellish area in back where slaves work the fields, serve the meals, do the laundry and suffer an endless array of physical and verbal abuse at the hands of the man in charge, known only as Him (Eric Lange), and the other whites on the premises (including Jack Huston and Jena Malone). We soon get the sense that among the slaves, one of them, Eden (Janelle Monae), is looked upon as some sort of potential leader who could help lead them to freedom. However, she is now the personal property of Him—receiving regular rapes and beatings and even a branding (don’t worry—we get to see it) when she refuses to say her name out loud—and in the wake of a failed escape attempt that led to the murder of a couple of fellow slaves, Eden advises against doing anything then. However, with new cartloads of slaves arriving every day, Eden instantly knows that something will have to be done.
At this point, a cell phone rings and we are now in the modern-day bedroom of Veronica Henley (Monae again), a best-selling author and progressive firebrand who is spending the morning with her husband and young daughter before taking off for a new book tour in the wake of a much-discussed television appearance where she delivered a brutal verbal beatdown of a conservative stooge. Along the way, we see her dealing cooly with any number of micro aggressions that suggest that racist attitudes are still alive and well—she goes through a strange interview with a woman (Malone) who claims to be some kind of headhunter and whose every sentence has been calibrated for maximum insinuation and gets treated in a dismissive manner by the hotel’s concierge. From there, she goes out to dinner with her sassy best pal (Gabourey Sidibe) and another colleague (Lily Cowles) before deciding to call it a night and return to her hotel, a joint so creepy it should be renamed “The Portentous Arms.”
At this point, there has been no obvious connection made between the two disparate narratives, leading to any number of possible assumptions. Is Eden an ancestor of Veronica whose presence is meant to give life to the famous Faulkner quote “The past is not dead. It’s not even past”? Is Eden merely a representation of all women whose suffering at the hands of slavery helped to pave the way for who Veronica would one day become? Is there no relationship at all between the two other than to show that while things like slavery and plantations may have died away, the attitudes that formed them are still out there? Any one of those notions might have made for an interesting and potentially provocative work but instead of using any of them, Bush and Renz have instead elected to employ perhaps the single dumbest twist in recent movie history that does not involve the name “Shyamalan.”
(Seriously, I am about to give it away now so if you do not want to know, get out now. Better yet, go see “Get Out” again instead.)
It turns out that it was the second section of the film that was a flashback and that at its conclusion, we learn that the plantation sort of racist fantasy camp that takes the notion of Civil Wan reenactments one ghoulish step further by reliving the conditions that led to the war by kidnapping Black people—preferably accomplished ones like Veronica—and forcing them into slavery, murdering those who can’t or won’t obey. In other words, all of the brutality that was depicted in such unflinching detail during the relentless opening third was merely in the service of a gimmicky narrative curlicue that wouldn’t have passed muster in a lesser “Twilight Zone” episode. It feels as if Bush and Renz hit upon this conceit one day while brainstorming, realized that they could not come up with a plausible narrative structure that could contain it and decided to proceed ahead with it anyway. At a certain point, it does become kind of obvious that this is the direction where the film is heading and as a result, most viewers will find themselves less concerned with the sense of mounting dread that the film is trying to suggest (something that might have been achieved if the film had abandoned the gimmicky twist structure and played the second section before the first) and more interested in trying to figure out the logistics of the enterprise and why those in charge would grab someone as prominent as Veronica, knowing full well that her absence would arouse interest.
As dumb as the twist is, what really infuriated me about “Antebellum” is the way that it traffics so heavily in images of brutal and increasingly harrowing violence against Black people without even trying to earn the right to utilize such visions. To be clear, I do not necessarily object to depicting imagery of the mistreatment and subjugation of slaves in the course of a feature film. I could rattle off a number of films that have done this —“Mandingo” (1975), “Drum” (1976), “Roots” (1977), “Beloved” (1998), “Django Unchained” (2012) and “12 Years a Slave” (2013) come to mind—and while I may not have liked all of these films, I would argue that each one treated the subject with enough seriousness and respect (even “Django Unchained,” despite its overtly pulpy nature) to earn those images. “Antebellum,” on the other hand, never comes close to the level of those films. It pelts us with ghastly images right from the get-go—we see Eden branded before we learn her name—but as the parade of grotesqueries continues on (each one shot with the kind of studied luster one might expect in a Terrence Malick film), it is never accompanied by any sort of insight about slavery or the mindset that would conceive of such a thing. That said, there is one area in which it is careful to not tread on the sensibilities of people. The bad guys here may be reenacting the Confederacy and they may kidnap, rape, torture, mutilate and murder Black people in order to bring their disease fantasies to life, but never fear—at no point do any of them actually go so far as to deploy the “n” word, an ultra-cynical conceit that might be the lowest of all the myriad number of low points on display here.
Adding to the film’s woes, our heroine turns out to be little more than a cipher—it makes sense that Eden is stripped of all recognizable humanity but Veronica proves to be just as one-dimensional before she is snatched—and as a result, her eventual triumph lacks the kind of cathartic effect it is striving for because the filmmakers have essentially stripped her of her identity as ruthlessly as her captors. In previous films like “Hidden Figures” (2016) “Moonlight” (2016) and “Harriet” (2019), Monae has proven herself to be an engaging and intriguing screen presence but she does not yet have the kind of deep acting chops that would allow her to make anything out of the gibberish that she has been given to work with. Besides her, the only other performance that makes any sort of impression—and not in a good way—is the one given by Jena Malone, whose questionable Southern accent and ham-fisted delivery of her far too on-the-nose dialogue is more inadvertently funny than creepy. (I hope that someone posts her climactic moment, in which she screams out huge gobs of exposition while firing a gun willy-nilly, to YouTube soon because it is so hilariously awful that it is almost worth watching—just that part, I stress.)I was just about to say that anyone looking for any real insights, either dramatic or historical, about the issues milling about in “Antebellum” would be better served by taking another look at “Blazing Saddles” (1974). Then I remembered that, in yet another astonishingly taste-free moments on display, Bush and Renz actually chose to make blatant reference to that film’s most famous bean-free moment, one of a number of self-conscious homages ranging from Kubrick to Beyonce. This may show that the two have seen a lot of movies between them but the end result suggests that they did not learn much of anything from them. The film is ultimately so useless that the only people who may get anything out of it are the very racists it ostensibly seeks to condemn, who may get a kick out of seeing one of the more progressive Black female entertainers working today being put in her place for the opening third. Other than that, “Antebellum” is nothing more than a gross example of a attempted conversation starter of a film perpetrated by people who clearly have nothing to say nor any idea of how to say it.
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