FILM REVIEW: ANTEBELLUM strives to be GET OUT, but the cosplay comes up short.


Despite hosting a commanding screen presence from Janelle Monae, the feature debut from writer/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz doesn’t really say anything much about race & prejudice except give us a greatest hits melody of its horrors minus any meaningful subtext.

One of the great horrors and tragedies of slavery in America is that a little over 150 years after its abolition, the context of its role in the advent of the American Civil War has become muddied by those who argue that slavery wasn’t the root cause of the Civil War, but rather it was the idea of federal intervention over states’ rights. The truth is that the principal right that southern states felt the federal government was overreaching in through its abolishment of that right was the right to own slaves. In that same period of 150 years ago to now, civil rights in America are still a fraught and tenuous issue; with this year being a prime example of that, as racial tensions over police brutality and overreach have reached a fevered point and the idea that until black lives matter as much as those of whites, no one’s lives matter being a statement that can ignite firestorms amongst friends and family. One is reminded how much Jordan Peele’s GET OUT pre-saged this to many who weren’t aware of it on a conscious level in the ending to his 2017 film when a police car pulling up to the house where his protagonist has had to fight for his life seems to signal doom for him in the eyes of minority viewers until that police presence is beautifully subverted with some deft wit and a story beat that pays off character work done throughout the film.

It’s those subversions of subtext and an eye for the expectations and experience of the audience that is sorely missing in Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’ ANTEBELLUM, opening on September 18th exclusively on Premium VOD. In many ways, ANTEBELLUM is a post-modern blaxploitation film, taking the baton of themes already explored in Peele’s GET OUT and squarely aimed at that same urban audience expecting a horror genre subversion with a twist addressing the current state of race relations in America and expecting the same success. The problem with that description is largely that Bush and Renz, who also wrote the film, don’t really have anything much to say about the black experience in America and how that relates to the Antebellum South. So instead, we as the audience are treated to a torture porn melange of its greatest wrongs, and excesses passed off as a statement on racism. ANTEBELLUM opens with a beautifully shot and staged slow-motion pan across a working cotton plantation; one where a slave named Eden (Janelle Monae) has orchestrated an escape along with a few other slaves. As Eden is stopped, we’re treated to a slow-motion lynching of another slave by Confederate Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), who ends her with a gunshot to the head as we see her being cremated a few scenes later as Eden is dragged away to be branded by the Confederate General (Eric Lange), who also rapes her at his leisure. As we feel there is no escape for Eden’s character, the film makes an abrupt turn from its narrative.

Suddenly, we are following a character named Veronica Henley (Janelle Monae), a successful Ph.D. turned author who is promoting a book about empowering historically disenfranchised minorities “as a pathway for revolution.” She gives a Skype interview to a “headhunter” named Elizabeth (Jena Malone) about her rising media profile and what she stands for as Elizabeth blithely shows her prejudice by telling her how articulate she is on television and how her lipstick suits her skin tone. Veronica is put off by this conversation and heads off to a conference where she is speaking. While the film shines here due to some great supporting performances by Gabourey Sidibe and Lily Cowles that make you wish the film was a sassy take on Girls Trip, it soon turns dark as Henley is kidnapped by Elizabeth as Sidibe and Cowles’s characters are none the wiser.

Much has been made of the big twist the film hosts. We won’t spoil it here, but it is made clear fairly early on for viewers that are paying attention and Antebellum is one of those films that is specifically designed to be rewatched so you can see how early the twist is telegraphed to the viewer by clues in the background and staging that they missed the first time without context. Needless to say, the twist isn’t the central issue in the film, its faults are in the film’s foundation and the twist itself will likely only draw unfavorable comparisons to another film by a contemporary filmmaker. As I said earlier on, the film struggles because it isn’t saying anything meaningful about the black/minority experience in America and in doing a surface-level nod to casual prejudice and white privilege (i.e., how black people aren’t given nice tables at restaurants or turnover service for Henley’s white friend is excellent compared to her black friends), it’s perpetuating a bigger issue with a film like this. As I noted earlier, Antebellum reminds me in many ways of a blaxploitation film and I can’t help but be reminded of the 1975 film Black Bounty Killer aka Boss Nigger, written by Fred Williamson but directed by Jack Arnold. Arnold was a white filmmaker; most well-known for directing the classic Universal Monster film The Creature from The Black Lagoon. But this was also Williamson’s first time writing a film, one that was widely praised for parodying the one-dimensional roles Williamson had played in other blaxploitation films like 1973’s Black Caesar, which were always written and directed by white men. That’s the large problematic issue in Antebellum; this film gives you a surface level character in Monae’s Henley/Eden that never really develops on-screen. While Monae commands the screen with her charisma and presence when we see her set in iconic staging or loving close-ups, we never really learn much about her inner life or motivation, save that her book is about empowerment and revolution in a film where that is a needed plot element. We don’t see why other slaves would follow her character’s lead; they just do. It’s frustrating as a viewer when the character work we see on-screen largely has no pay-off in the way it does in GET OUT. Important characters just are and we don’t see the whys of how they got there. It’s not just Monae’s character, we have characters mouthing “cracker” under their breath at their oppressors to show agency and that is as far as their development goes and we have to guess at the relationships other characters have to each other and why. Even the film’s villains have pencil-thin rationales for their actions which makes the central threat of the film that much less plausible. When one character tells Monae that he is everywhere, even if he’s stopped, it undercuts several beats in the film, most notably the ending. If pervasive racism or institutionalized racial prejudice is the true enemy that will always win, it doesn’t say much when the authorities show up to supposedly save the day and then queue the credits. It does speak to Bush and Renz not getting the issue they’re ostensibly making a film about. But, on a deeper level, it speaks to them not understanding why the end of GET OUT works. It works, because minorities have traditionally been the victims of profiling, racially motivated violence, and given a lack of credibility in the eyes of the police with their word against that of a white person. ANTEBELLUM wants to live in a world where if someone is abused and triggered long enough by sadism and sexual violence, they’ll lead a revolution and somehow racism won’t be an issue because they’ve found a fire inside to not be victimized anymore. The real world doesn’t work that way and Antebellum’s lip service to the idea of empowerment doesn’t make it a companion piece to GET OUT, it makes it the blaxploitation mockbuster at the video store riding the coattails of GET OUT’s appeal without adding anything new to the conversation. It’s pretty to look at with some good performances, but ultimately forgettable.