From Portside Culture <[email protected]>
Subject Review, With Spoilers: Grossly Misguided 'Antebellum' Thinks Trauma Is Empowering for Some Stupid Reason
Date September 9, 2020 12:00 AM
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[If you’re wondering what would happen if you crossed Craig
Zobel’s The Hunt with that Confederate series D. B. Weiss and
David Benioff wanted to make before HBO pulled the plug, the answer is
definitely Antebellum.] [[link removed]]


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Ciara Wardlow
September 2, 2020
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_ If you’re wondering what would happen if you crossed Craig
Zobel’s The Hunt with that Confederate series D. B. Weiss and
David Benioff wanted to make before HBO pulled the plug, the answer is
definitely Antebellum. _



If you’re wondering what would happen if you crossed Craig
Zobel’s _The Hunt_
[[link removed]] with
that _Confederate_ series D. B. Weiss and David Benioff wanted to
make before HBO pulled the plug, the answer is
definitely _Antebellum_, the feature debut of writer-director duo
Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz.

The better question, though, is why anyone would want to unleash such
a turd of a combo on the world in the first place. Having sat
through _Antebellum_, I still have no idea who this film is supposed
to be for, or why anyone could possibly think it was a good idea. It
is a grossly miscalculated waste of talent, resources, and time.

This review will “spoil” the film because in this instance there
is no way to properly discuss this garbage and why it stinks so bad
without laying all the cards. I would also argue that you can’t
really spoil what’s already rotten, but I know some folks hate
spoilers even if the story in question is trash, so take this as your
warning and turn around now if you don’t want to know how this one

Now that disclaimers are out of the way, here’s the tea. The woman
of the hour is Veronica (Janelle Monáe), a paragon of Black
Excellence. Highly educated, she’s successful in both her career as
a sociologist and in her personal life, happily married to doting
husband Nick (Marque Richardson) and the proud mother of a precocious
young daughter named Kennedi (London Boyce). One night, out of town to
speak about her bestselling book at a conference, Veronica is
kidnapped by a nefarious group of Confederacy-loving Civil War
reenactors who take things to the next level by kidnapping and
enslaving Black people in order to achieve a fully authentic
Confederate experience.

However, _Antebellum_, in the name of shock value, tells this story
out of order, first introducing Monáe as the enslaved “Eden,”
wading her way through a parade of horrors in what is presumably the
19th century. Then Veronica awakes with a gasp in her beautiful
present-day home, suggesting that Eden is an ancestor of Veronica’s
and alluding to the extraordinary and growing canon of Black
literature that explores intergenerational trauma,
from _Roots_ to _The Vanishing Half_.

Throughout its second act, _Antebellum_ masquerades as such a tale,
before making its big reveal: Eden is, in fact, Veronica, and the
whole story takes place in the present. It’s not a story tapping
into a rich legacy of Black storytelling, but instead the latest
installment of the people-hunting conspiracy thriller trend that
peaked early with the Brazilian weird western _Bacurau_
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has since scraped the bottom of the barrel with _The Hunt _and now,
shockingly, a torture-fest that feels even more poorly judged.

Technically, Antebellum is a beautiful film, full of gorgeously crisp
cinematography, full of sweeping tracking shots, and skillful use of
deep focus. But it’s an ugly, painful, infuriatingly pointless
viewing experience. It’s like the film is trying to counter the
bogus argument that racism was a problem solved in the 1960s by making
the exact opposite but similarly foolish, argument—that the
difference between the Black experience of the antebellum South and
the present is mostly WiFi and airplanes.

Again: who is this movie supposed to be for? As a Black woman, there
is no insight on display here; it’s just painful to watch. What is
any Black woman viewer supposed to gain from the experience of
watching the epitome of Black girl magic get kidnapped, tortured,
raped, and dehumanized? _But she escapes in the end,_ a devil’s
advocate would argue, _she kills her captors and rides off to

Sure, Veronica gets away—the lucky one, the one who makes it out
while all the friends she made in captivity meet gruesome ends to
emphasize the danger she’s in, because these filmmakers understand
raising stakes but not bestowing characters with any depth or
humanity—but she gets away beaten, literally branded like cattle.
The film ends with her ride to freedom because even with the lack of
insight on display here, the filmmakers likely realized that what
comes after would hardly be triumphant, a survivor now left to deal
with the aftermath of physical scars that will never go away, and
psychological demons no amount of therapy could ever exorcise.

Twenty, thirty years ago, a film like _Antebellum_ would be distinct
enough in its confrontation of racism to feel like a statement of some
kind, albeit a confused one, but in 2020 it’s beyond stale. The
prestige slave film is a bad habit that needs to be broken.
Remembering the past is important, and entertainment plays an
important role in shaping public memory. But on this front, more
isn’t inherently better. If anything, it’s worse. It’s painful,
and it’s more painful for Black audiences who most easily identify
with the bodies being brutalized on screen over and over and over
again. There’s more to the Black experience and even the institution
of racism than cotton fields and whipping posts, and Hollywood’s
fascination with this specific facet of Black history only feels more
warped and misguided by the day. Retelling this story more doesn’t
somehow magnify impact. The people who go around wearing Confederate
flag t-shirts aren’t going to watch movies like these, no matter how
many are made. It’s preaching to the choir and the song is someone
scratching a chalkboard on a loop.

Telling repetitive and graphic tales of the horrors of slavery does
not, in fact, actively satisfy any real moral imperative. Filmmakers
don’t get some sort of karmic gold star for dehumanizing characters
twice over—first with slavery, second with a shoddy script—just
because the horrors on display are inspired by historical truths. This
is not to say there can’t or shouldn’t be films made depicting
slavery. It’s to say that the films that are worth the pain actually
have something to say. _Antebellum_ does not. It just hurts.

_Antebellum_ premieres on VOD September 18.

_Ciara is one of Pajiba's film critics. You can follow her on Twitter
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