This movie cares little for its characters, who are brutalized in the filmmakers’ pursuit of one thing: tricking the audience.
Photo: Matt Kennedy
I remember the feeling of my 9-year-old brain imploding when M. Night Shyamalan reveals the extent of Bruce Willis’s mortality in The Sixth Sense. Or when I clutched my proverbial pearls upon discovering the Armitages’ nefarious plot in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. I love a horror film with a good twist, especially when the revelation propels my understanding of the characters and the worlds they’ve been inhabiting. But that’s the inherent difficulty in manufacturing a shocking narrative pivot: Bad reveals feel like a gotcha gimmick, more intent on tricking the audience than saying anything insightful about the story. Directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s horror debut, Antebellum, falls into this exact trap. While initial trailers for the film inspired comparisons to Octavia Butler’s eerie 1979 novel Kindred — in which an African American woman experiences the suffering of her ancestors by mysteriously time-traveling to a Maryland plantation — the infuriating premise for Antebellum decides to take a left turn.
Janelle Monáe plays Eden, a Black woman who, at the beginning of a film I can categorize only as a slave thriller, finds herself on a brutal, pre–Civil War southern plantation. Restricted by Confederate soldiers from speaking, she and her fellow slaves endure beatings, rapes, and brandings. In the first act alone, we watch a fleeing Black woman get lassoed, dragged to the ground, and unflinchingly executed with a bullet to the head by a captain (Jack Huston) riding horseback. Eden herself is harshly whipped with a belt and later branded, by a general known only as Him (Eric Lange), because of her refusal to speak her slave name aloud. But subtle anachronisms are afoot, foreshadowing Bush and Renz’s eventual plot twist. For instance, some of the indentured possess opulent gold chains or septum piercings, both of which seem notably contemporary. However, we unfortunately learn nothing more about these characters or their surroundings before the filmmakers make clear what those anachronisms are hinting at: Eden is really Veronica, a 21st-century best-selling author and successful public speaker who has been kidnapped by rich, racist white folks and forced to work on their modern-day plantation.
How are the rich, racist white folks pulling this off, you may ask? The prime rule at this amusement park masquerading as a plantation demands that participants not carry their cell phones while in costume, lest a slave get hold of one. Of course, one of the Confederate cosplayers violates that rule. In a bird’s-eye-view shot before the audience understands the parameters of this nightmare, we see a traumatized Veronica recovering from one of the general’s latest sexual assaults. But rather than exploring the physical, emotional, or psychological damage that has just been inflicted upon her, the filmmakers use rape as a kitschy doorway to a reveal: the sound of a nearby vibrating cell phone, one that her rapist seems to have neglected to leave behind. With that, the film shifts and Eden, now named Veronica, wakes up in a beautiful present-day apartment she shares with a husband and daughter. Was all that antebellum horror a dream? “My nana used to say our ancestors haunt our dreams to see themselves forward,” Veronica tells a friend later. Alas, no. After a lot of fruitless exposition on Veronica’s professional and personal life (she’s an equestrian, she practices yoga; these are small details that will play into the movie’s conclusion but little else), the audience is thrown back onto the plantation. It turns out a group of wealthy white people have actually been kidnapping successful Black people and imprisoning them in a nightmarish playground for racists that has gone unnoticed by the outside world. Why? Well, we get about as much characterization of the white villains as we do of the people they’ve enslaved. Their motives remain unremarkable. Perhaps that’s the point the filmmakers fail to effectively make.
One character in particular suffers greatly from the directors’ inability to provide a backstory or interiority: the pregnant Julia (Kiersey Clemons), who demands that Veronica lead a full-on rebellion or escape. Unbeknownst to Julia, Veronica has already been testing the creaks in her cabin’s floorboards. She has been planning to rob the general of his phone and use the flexibility she gained as a yoga enthusiast to run away silently. But Veronica neglects to tell Julia of her scheme. Instead, the latter endures a savage beating by a young soldier, which results in a miscarriage. Still, Veronica tells her nothing. Not until after Julia hangs herself does Veronica decide to enact her plot. And why? Because Veronica isn’t protecting her own secret; she’s protecting Bush and Renz’s twist. Julia is a martyr for their suspense.
When viewers discover Bruce Willis has been dead all along in The Sixth Sense, the surprise speaks volumes about his character’s unwillingness, even beyond the grave, to relinquish his career, a vocation that cost him his marriage. When Chris learns of the Armitages’ plan to colonize his body for their immortality in Get Out, their strategy underscores just how much value white folks place on Black bodies rather than souls. These filmmakers withhold the surprises in their narratives not to trick the audience but to allow us time to build empathy for the antagonists and to explore the universes they master. But in Antebellum, we’re not granted a glimpse into the characters or the worlds they inhabit. The only other slave we encounter on the plantation is a man so lightly sketched his name doesn’t extend past his profession — the Professor (Tongayi Chirisa). The others are nameless, faceless men and women silently resigned to their fate, which suggests a startling reality that only Kanye West would agree with: They’re slaves because they allow themselves to be. As Julia intimates, they need the rich, talented Veronica to lead them to freedom. The film’s eventual conclusion serves only to reinforce such classist notions. Veronica succeeds in stealing the phone, contacting her husband, and riding off on a horse to freedom through a field of battle reenactors just as police arrive on the scene.
It’s fair to ask if Antebellum’s twist even qualifies as such. When we learn Veronica’s true identity, the information doesn’t alter the trajectory of the story: Black bodies remain under threat from white folks either way. By rendering the historical pain of slavery in such an apathetic fashion, the filmmakers wield Black trauma with the thoughtfulness of a kid playing with a Super Soaker. By repositioning that historical pain in the contemporary United States, they’re saying these times are bad and not so far removed from antebellum America as we like to think, but they fail to reflect upon how the savagery of Confederate sympathizers has inevitably evolved over the years. And by omitting the fantastical aspects of a story like Kindred’s, they underestimate the genre and the way myths can communicate ungraspable concepts when realism fails. The twist in Antebellum is barely a twist because it says nothing remotely introspective about our country. Rather, the reveal says everything about Hollywood and the kind of political content it’s willing to produce.