“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
Antebellum opens with that quotation. If you want an explanation for the title, the setting, and all the anachronistic batshit imagery in the trailer, that one quotation is pretty much all you need to know. Of course there’s a big revelation as well, and I’ll do my best to dance around that — God knows there’s so much else to talk about here.
(Side note: I feel obligated to mention that of the two writer/producer/directors behind this film, one of them — Gerard Bush — is a black man. The other one — Christopher Renz — is white.)
As you might’ve guessed from the trailer, the plot is split between two different time periods, and the connective tissue between them is Janelle Monae. In one time period, she plays “Eden”, who labors as a slave on a Civil War-era Confederate plantation. In the other time period, she’s Dr. Veronica Henley, a world-renowned sociologist with a specialty in modern race relations.
It’s interesting to note that Veronica tries to make a difference by speaking truth to power. She writes books, she holds seminars, she goes viral with cable news interviews. Eden, on the other hand, does her best to remain silent. She keeps her head down and stays out of trouble, encouraging patience until the opportune moment.
On the one hand, both women could potentially make themselves into targets by speaking out. On the other hand, while remaining quiet is safer, it’s not exactly productive toward making positive changes. Then again, if black people are dying and nothing’s getting done about it either way, then maybe it’s a moot point.
But then, in the third act, the filmmakers introduce a radical new idea: That silence isn’t necessarily the same thing as stealth. If those in the oppressive white patriarchy want black people to be silent and invisible, they might just be inadvertently grooming a threat they’ll never see coming. Especially if those in power and comfort only ever see what they want and expect to see.
This brings me to another notion that comes into play in both periods: Life in an echo chamber. Yes, we know that the Confederacy lost the Civil War, but how could Confederate slaves know that there would be any hope of rescue? They only ever hear what the returning Confederate soldiers and generals tell them, and they don’t see anything of the actual warfare. Likewise, Veronica tends to surround herself with like-minded women. They’re all perfectly aware of the ongoing racist threat, sure, but they don’t realize how close that threat really is or what it really looks like until it’s too late.
Speaking of which, the filmmakers spare no time in letting us know that their portrayal of Civil War-era slavery will be brutal. More to the point, this is yet another film about racism that portrays white racists in a cartoonish two-dimensional manner. Then again, given the public behavior of racists in America over the past four years, I’m starting to think that might not be as unfair or unrealistic as we all might like. Plus, I appreciate how the filmmakers threw in a slightly less awful Confederate soldier (Daniel, played by Robert Aramayo) to portray how seductive and addictive white toxic masculinity can be.
But then we come to the elephant in the room: The big reveal.
I’ll grant that the execution works beautifully. In terms of camerawork, editing, special effects, sound design, and plot structure, the setup and payoff are superbly handled. The central conceit also makes a lot of sense on a thematic and allegorical level, commenting on how America is still carrying the baggage of the Civil War. It’s also a fine commentary on white American bigots’ nostalgia for the last time when they could legally kidnap, purchase, exploit, rape, and murder people of color — the same nostalgia that likely contributes to our ongoing struggle to shed the baggage of the Confederacy.
The problem is that on a literal level, it doesn’t make any sense. Despite all the filmmakers’ best efforts to keep the conceit plausible, it still opens up too many plot holes and turns too many setups into red herrings. Easily the most prominent example is the creepy blonde girl in the trailer (played by Arabella Landrum). Given what we eventually learn about what’s going on, the character’s inclusion and actions make absolutely zero sense.
But what really sets the film back is that it cribs so aggressively from Get Out and Us. In fact, the promos actively beg for comparisons to the smarter, scarier, more surreal works of Jordan Peele. That was a colossal mistake.
First of all — as I’ve already stated — the racists of Antebellum are your garden variety southern Confederate assholes we’ve seen a million times before. Compare that to the racists of Get Out, who were dangerous and psychotic in a novel and totally different way. Their brand of racism was more subtle and insidious, a bone-chilling demonstration of how racism doesn’t have to be homicidal or even actively hateful to be destructive.
Perhaps more importantly, both Get Out and Us started from mundane places (more or less), and gradually went further and deeper into more surreal, more fantastic, more terrifying places. This movie takes the opposite approach. Without getting too deep into spoilers, it starts with a fantastic premise — two identical women in two different time periods, with various echoes and similarities between the two — and winds down into a mundane explanation.
Put more simply: When we learned what was happening in Get Out and Us, the antagonists became even scarier. When we learn what’s happening in Antebellum, it robs the antagonists of their power. That’s a pretty big failure.
Oh, and there’s the recurring butterfly motif. I don’t have the first clue what that’s all about.
I want to give all due credit to the cast. Janelle Monae once again proves herself to be a goddamn multitalented superstar who doesn’t get paid nearly enough for everything she can capably do. Kiersey Clemons turns in heartbreaking work, and it warmed my heart to see Gabourey Sidibe on the screen again. I was also rather taken with Lily Cowles, here playing a woke white woman. This is pretty much Cowles’ big debut, and I’ll be interested to see where she goes from here.
Elsewhere, Eric Lange is a suitable Big Bad, though I though Jena Malone was a lot more fun to hate. Jack Huston makes for an effective hate sink as well.
Overall, I had a good time with Antebellum. The cast is delightful, the central mystery kept me engaged, and I appreciate the filmmakers’ various timely statements with regard to how we got here and how we’re having such a hard time making changes. Even for all my complaints about the big reveal, I still appreciate what the filmmakers were trying to say.
Your mileage may vary wildly with regards to the big reveal, but I’d still recommend giving it a look.