Shamelessly riding the coattails of Get Out’s success by evoking social discourse through horror, Antebellum is unfortunately more of a horrific mess than anything else.
The initial premise of a Civil War era slave named Eden (Janelle Monae) with a dreamlike connection to a woman in the future named Veronica, a successful author and activist who looks just her, has a lot of potential. With both women facing oppression from systemic racism – Eden under the brutal watch of a Confederate captain only known as “Him” (Eric Lange) and Veronica facing scrutiny from detractors for her black activism, there could’ve been an interesting story about the horrible ways that history can repeat itself, touching on how racism has stayed alive and adapted through generations. However, Antebellum throws all of this away on a story that is poorly told and uses racial tension carelessly in an attempt to be a horror movie.
With no sense of atmosphere, creepy elements, or even halfway decent jump scares, the only thing that remotely makes Antebellum fit into the horror genre is its depiction of slavery – which is honestly kind of gross. Using historical context as a means of creating horror can be a really effective method. After all, HBO’s Lovecraft Country is doing just that with its depictions of Jim Crow racism in the US. The difference here though is that Lovecraft’s depictions of racism are unique, character driven, and backed by Lovecraftian horrors presented throughout each episode. Not to mention, Lovecraft Country touches on more than just racism alone, as it explores the full emotions and anguish of the black community during this time, adding details to an era that is integrated into American history. Antebellum does not manage these necessary steps.
Its characters have no distinct traits or much personality and the film doesn’t offer a new perspective on the era. Instead it just showcases the basics we’ve seen time and time again – and done better elsewhere, while utilising physical brutality to create a form of horror that isn’t effective. It exploits a horrific time in history which makes watching some of the historical elements of the film quite nauseating. Things aren’t much better when the film jumps to the present, as it fails to add anything new to the conversation and comes off looking like a film trying to profit on the back of current social issues.
Sadly, not even the acting performances can elevate the written material because they simply aren’t given anything to work with. Outside of Monae, no one really carries much screen presence. The supporting characters forcibly fall into broad hero or villain roles and end up just blending in the background. The only other memorable performance is from Gabourey Sidibe as Veronica’s friend Dawn, but only because of how desperate her character is for attention. The film wants her to be the comedic relief, but every line feels annoyingly like she’s trying to cut people off or direct the story back to her. Even Monae ends up unable to bring anything special to either performance as Eden or Veronica.
The framing of the story is easily what tanks the viewing experience the hardest, as the transitions from Eden to Veronica’s perspective feel like you’re starting over each time, never progressing through the story in a satisfying way. Not to mention, it keeps the details of their connection a mystery, leaving viewers in the dark for way too long, only to make the confounding twist work – which comes out of nowhere to the point that you’re only really left scratching your head. Even some of the interesting visuals of the past and present coming together aren’t worth the film taking this unnecessary sharp turn, which is ultimately the pinnacle of this film’s poor decisions.
For those interested in films made by black directors that flesh out and vividly explore black experience, anguish, and systematic racism, recent films Da 5 Bloods, Queen & Slim, The First Purge, The Hate U Give, and If Beale Street Could Talk are a much more deserving watch than Antebellum, unfortunately a sure-fire skip.