Antebellum is a vapid, one-gimmick flick that plays like a politically impotent episode of Black Mirror.
There’s still plenty of debate over cinematic depictions of slavery specifically and the abuse of Black bodies in general. Movies like Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave, and Detroit, to name just a few, have received both criticism and praise for their choices in this regard. If there’s an argument to be made that the deployment of these images can be bent to productive ends, such a stance must also acknowledge that Antebellum fails to do that. Misguided, self-serving, and ultimately pointless, the entire project is hung on an unnecessary fake-out that, rather than adding some potential layer of complexity, seems to be the film’s sole reason for being.
The first 40 minutes of Antebellum is a litany of physical torture, sexual violence, and psychological cruelty, all of it inflicted on the enslaved people on a nameless labor camp (previously known as a plantation, although if we’re getting hung up on terminology, curiously none of the virulent racists and murderers here ever utter the n-word). A great deal of it is focused on a woman renamed Eden (Janelle Monae), who seems to bear the brunt of hate from both the camp’s overseer (Jack Huston, literally mustache-twirling) and her primary enslaver Elizabeth (Jena Malone, trotting out an absurd Southern accent).
After we’ve had our fill of this monotonous brutality, Monae’s character awakens one morning and we discover that she’s thriving in the present day as Veronica, a respected author and occasional political pundit; she has a lovely husband and child, a discernibly impressive income, and seemingly no memory of whatever it is we just watched. We’re party to the rest of her day, which mostly involves checking into a ritzy hotel and preparing for a night out with friends, as well as endless encounters with racist micro-aggression. That all of this serves merely to reinforce parallels between “then” and “now,” to suggest that things really haven’t changed all that much, is unarguably trite, and makes the revelation to come even more empty.
Effective though Monae certainly is here, that we know materially nothing about Eden/Veronica beyond her social status in both “time periods” renders her very observably committed performance a moot point. Co-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz unimaginatively push the whole thing forward with the occasional, obligatory snaking tracking shot and an instinct to cut away from or obscure the most hideous aspects of their film’s violence — it’s a cloying display of performative good taste that frankly reveals how cowardly this whole enterprise is. In the end, Antebellum possesses little beyond its ludicrous hook. It doesn’t take much more than a casual eye to figure out what’s going on in Antebellum, but it insists on playing things coy so that it can reveal its truly obnoxious third-act twist, which is actually a sturdy premise that could have made for an intricately structured and politically-targeted thriller. Instead, it’s a lumpy, especially politically impotent episode of Black Mirror.