‘Antebellum’ Falls Short of Lofty Aims

Intended as a commentary on systemic racism, the film feels more like a standard revenge flick.

Antebellum begins with a quotation from William Faulkner’s novel Requiem for a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” The filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz run with this theme, treating the past like a genetic memory passed down to African Americans by their enslaved forebears. Twenty minutes into the film Veronica (Janelle Monáe) wakes up from a vivid nightmare in which she was living as a 19th century slave named Eden. Her bad dream leaves her physically drained, as if she’d dredged up a long-buried ancestral memory.

Bush and Renz initially create a fraught and eerie atmosphere that runs, in many ways, parallel to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). Peele’s main character, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), experiences the same associated threats that Veronica eventually does — surveillance and abduction. For both characters, the origins of a threatening white majority stem from the past but persist, ominously, into the present. Peele, however, writes with more psychological depth and complexity. Chris and every supporting character in Get Out populate the film with a wide range of motivations, moods, and conflicting attitudes.

Antebellum renders Veronica mostly mute or underwritten, and the supporting characters don’t leave much of an impression — save for Elizabeth (Jena Malone), a creepy woman who stalks Veronica online and later in person. Elizabeth briefly appeared in the film’s opening dream and, in the present-day timeline, she’s nearly vampiric in her obsessive pursuit.

Veronica is a successful author, political pundit, and an inspirational speaker — an amalgamation of public figures like Iyanla Vanzant and Angela Davis. After taking a flight to a conference, she gives a speech to promote her new book. Veronica delivers two or three generic, well-meaning platitudes that receive universal praise. At the end of her talk, the audience looks like they’re giving a standing ovation for Janelle Monáe, the pop star, and not the character she’s playing. The applause looks especially forced because Monáe’s real-life charisma as a musician doesn’t make it to Veronica’s stage.

Later that night, the nightmare that started her day becomes a reality, as she and another dozen African Americans are imprisoned on a cotton plantation that recreates the antebellum South. Bush and Renz write themselves into a corner when Veronica gets there. One of the rules is that the “slaves” can’t speak unless they’re given permission to do so by the “Confederate” soldiers in charge. While it’s understandable that Veronica would be traumatized by the experience, numbed into silence, prohibiting the main character from speaking with her fellow prisoners disrupts the narrative. She makes one friend in Eli (Tongayi Chirisa) but their bond is forged in a few wordless glances. Even in A Quiet Place (2018) — set in a world besieged by man-eating monsters drawn to their victims by sound — some conversation takes place to advance the plot and to develop the characters.

The soldiers are one-dimensional. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, there is no need for lengthy think pieces aimed at understanding the drives of men like this. White supremacy is a base and animalistic impulse, undeserving of nuanced debate. Still, unlike in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) — which found a way to account for the evil actions of slave owners and thus gave that film a definitive coherence — the antagonists of Antebellum are flat stereotypes who seem to exist solely to inflict pain. Yes, they are undoubtedly awful, but it is merely the circumstances of a 21st century plantation that make them sinister, not the way they’re written.

It’s Elizabeth alone who conjures up a storm of willful malevolence. Part of her unholy crusade is to silent public figures like Veronica who speak to the Black Lives Matter movement. Malone is carving out a fine niche for herself as a cinematic villain. Her role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s The Neon Demon was a nice warmup for the kind of depravity she embodies in Antebellum. When she rides a horse into the night, Elizabeth reveals the madness fueling the soul of a white supremacist. Malone gives a baroque performance — Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara and Blanche DuBois.

Antebellum is structured as a nightmare that shifts into a nightmare that’s real. There isn’t any dramatic advantage in this nonlinear structure. During the initial plantation scenes, you can hear that the language is colloquial and contemporary, with an overlay of something false and performative. If the film had started with Veronica’s domestic life, her time at the plantation would have felt more grueling and unendurable. Not because we need to see Veronica beaten, branded, and raped, as she is, but in order to deepen our understanding of the character. 

The movie works as a thriller but doesn’t resonate in the same way that Get Out does. Peele wrote a screenplay that was adjacent to The Twilight Zone. But the mysticism lined up with the psychology. When the terrible dream becomes real for Veronica, she can’t get out of Antebellum without turning into an action hero in a standard revenge fantasy. It’s satisfying to watch Elizabeth’s downfall, but everyone else Veronica exacts vengeance upon is merely an abstraction. 

Antebellum will be released on demand September 18.

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