Antebellum Review

By Judah Clayton

Janelle Monáe with butterfly over mouth in red Antebellum poster
Antebellum (2020) movie poster

WARNING: This review contains themes of sexual assault, brutality, and other themes along those lines. Please take care when reading, and definitely take care of yourself if you plan to watch Antebellum. This review also contains heavy spoilers for the movie.

Antebellum. Getting through this movie was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. There’s really no way that I can describe it other than trauma porn. It’s this dumping of slavery-related traumatic images shellacked together to form something resembling a movie. This review won’t focus on the movie as much as it’ll focus on the process of the movie, and what the movie represents in the broader context of Black society.

First of all, this movie starts with some of the most traumatizing vignettes I’ve ever seen. It’s during the antebellum period in American history, the time of legal slavery. We start with a quote: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” It’s attributed to William Faulkner. After this moment of calm, buckle in, because you’re not going to get another one for the next thirty minutes. Almost immediately, we’re thrown into a scene of a slave woman running away from her captors while a man is being rigged up to some contraption that fits around his head. The woman continues to run until a rope is tied around her neck. One of the men then shoots her with a gun at close range. Next, we’re introduced to one of Janelle Monae’s characters, Eden. She’s beaten with a belt, branded with a hot iron, and raped in later scenes. There’s a literal cotton-picking scene. Another woman is kicked in the stomach by a Confederate solider and has a miscarriage. I skipped over this scene for my own mental health. Some things just aren't worth watching for your own sake. I feel like my descriptions of these scenes don’t do the horrific nature of these scenes justice. They’re bad. Like, really bad.

That brings me to one of the issues I have with this movie: Who does this serve? I don’t need to be reminded about the horrors of slavery -- I feel the effects of it every day -- nor do I need to be retraumatized by a movie. Is it for white people? Why would they watch this, for entertainment? I don’t think anyone is comfortable with that idea. Is it just one of those movies made for white people to watch to experience white guilt, and then say that they did something to support Black enterprises? Who is this movie for?

I’d probably feel less weird about it if this movie wasn’t written and directed in part by a white man, Christopher Renz. The fact that a white man is writing it is bad enough on its own without thinking of the fact that he’s profiting off the depiction of the disenfranchisement and slavery of Black people. That will never sit right with me. He shouldn’t be making money off of this stuff. If this movie needed to be produced at all, it should have had all Black writers and all Black directors. It makes me wonder what part of the movie he wrote. What part of the horrors did he contribute to? Did he do enough research? I’ve read in other reviews that the historical accuracy of the movie in regards to the Confederacy is incorrect. Did he write the part of the movie that takes place in the present day? Because that part of the movie is way off.

So, in the present day, it turns out that the life of Eden is a dream. Janelle Monae now plays Veronica, a busy and successful sociologist with a husband and a child and the perfect most idyllic life. She has a best friend, who speaks like the most stereotypical Black woman in existence. She throws out buzzwords like “tea” and “woke” and “foine” like a caricature of herself, which isn’t a good look in a movie based on slavery. She doesn’t even really use the slang terms correctly. She serves as fantastic relief to the horrific vignettes that I just witnessed, but as a character she just falls flat. She does not feel like a full-bodied Black woman. She feels like a plot device. None of the writers or directors are Black women. I’m sure if they consulted at least one Black woman they would have been told that this isn’t it.

By the end, the movie has gone off the rails. There are cellphones in the “antebellum” period, because Veronica has actually been kidnapped and forced to live at a civil war reenactment plantation for months. She manages to get out and go home (I won’t spoil how but there are some really intense scenes in there) and the police arrive. Now, we all know by now that the police probably would be the ones to participate in the civil war reenactment, but that’s a point for a different day.

I genuinely want to believe this movie has good intentions. It came out around the height of the newest resurgence of the BLM movement, in September 2020. Of course, it had been in production long before that. But I wonder if releasing it around this time had any significance. Did the movement make the movie more poignant? I don’t think so. I think it made the movie insensitive. Here’s a moment where the resurgence of a movement that focuses on Black pain has come into the public eye once again, and then there’s a movie made that could not only retraumatize a population but serves really no purpose and adds nothing to the conversation about racism and slavery. This movie feels like a cash grab. The white characters aren’t written well. The Black characters feel barely written at all. And the reason is probably because it was partly written by a white man, who has no clue how the lasting vestiges of slavery affect Black people every day.

I wanted to like Antebellum. All it did was make me angry.

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