'Antebellum' Review: A messy unification of past and present sins

Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz's 'Antebellum' is a messy representation of timeless racial biases that never lives up to his horrific intentions.

Janelle Monáe in Antebellum.
(Image: © Lionsgate)

What to Watch Verdict

'Antebellum' fails to be more than just another graphic recounting of America's bigoted past and volatile present, confusing exploitative trauma as a meaningful message.


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    Janelle Monáe, as always, is incredible.

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    Cinematography shines.


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    Underwhelming horror angle.

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    Shallow emotional manipulation.

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    Underdeveloped ideas.

The horrors of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s Antebellum are torn from, and will someday be found within, textbook pages. Their genre exercise evokes the nationalistic sins of America’s past in the context of our lived-in political climate, where “Black Lives Matter” rightfully echoes from coast to coast. A cotton-picking slave named Eden (Janelle Monáe) hushes her fellow field hands, stressing patient obedience before striking back. A modern-day Veronica (also Janelle Monáe) assures crowds of black listeners the time for assimilation is over. Decades span between both Monáe’s roles, but they’re both preaching a repetitious message of relief on the horizon. Such condemnation of our failure as a nation in the juxtaposition, but alas, Bush and Renz's time-loop promotes storytelling choices that only want to regurgitate animosity without proper attention to its justified cause. 

What’s clear is how Antebellum aims to use time as a signifier. Opening sequences witness Jack Huston’s Captain Jasper, a Confederate loyalist, lasso a fleeing worker, then drag her limp body on horseback like something out of 12 Years A Slave. Act I is full of Eden’s complacent behavior under white authoritarian rule, which then snaps with jarring immediacy to an Act II that sees Ph.D. Veronica Henley, an accomplished activist and scholar, still suffering under the same white oppression (just not as overtly). Bush and Renz connect social studies dots, culminating with a third, final act that unities two far-flung periods in history which are, disturbingly, not all that different. Just look around at the resurgence of Confederate flags, conversations around statues, and racist rhetoric spouted from the top.

Except, the presented information doesn’t strike epiphanies. As Faulkner's quote introduces Bush and Renz's film, “The past is never dead, it’s not even past.” His statement is self-evident, as recently depicted in countless titles from BlacKkKlansman to Get Out. Movies that emphasize familiar terrors within new frameworks and empowerment through horror’s freedom of expression in specific cases. Antebellum fails this test, as its only method of capturing 2020's outcries for racial equality is through its graphic tortures of Black characters.

Jordan Peele’s depiction of horror and the Black experience, through two films, maximizes imagery that alludes to underlying racism (the deer symbolism in Get Out, etc.) without needing to spotlight slaves being whipped, branded, and inhumanely imprisoned. Antebellum is the reverse, as its horror elements - which are mismarketed - aren’t encouraged or provocative. It’s exploitation cinema, but the exploitation of tragedy and buzzwords and punishment. Shock value preys upon knee-jerk emotional reactions, yet the substance has been gutted. Pain confused with potency. Consequences are unspeakable, as Eli (Tongayi Chirisa) sifts through ashes in “The Shed” (where bodies are cremated), a direct punishment for calling Captain Jasper a “cracker.” The visual hurt is immense, but again, these moments aren’t bolstered by a desire to serve them up as fleeting anecdotes that confuse exploitative filmmaking with meaningful, revolutionary commentaries.

As Janelle Monáe’s worlds collide, her characters always experiencing the white man’s stranglehold, Monáe’s passionate real-world advocacy is lost. There’s little horror representation, minus a quick ghostly slaveowner's child who breaks the barrier between the Civil War and Veronica’s ritzy book tour hotel experience (staying in the Jefferson Suite, where the white concierge still belittles a successful Black woman). Jena Malone plays Elizabeth, a Southern belle who upholds the ideology of “Make America Great Again,” where “Great” translates to a whitewashed future that dares evoke talk of master races. There’s no mincing words, nor pictorial evidence, but that lack of subtlety is why the non-existence of imaginative horror manipulation is so frustrating. The treatment of Kiersey Clemons’ Julia proves Bush and Renz aren’t thinking about their characters as more than pawn sacrifices. Whereas, to continue the Peele comparisons, Daniel Kaluuya’s Get Out lead tumbles into a sunken place where every supporting character tells their own story.

As informed by the filmmakers, Antebellum hinges on “truth.” All the violence, while unsightly, occurred (is still occurring). Although, the filmmakers cannot grasp how to resonate messaging outside these truths, since there’s no desire to enact change besides Veronica’s boilerplate verbiage during practiced monologues. Words about how the patriarchy survives by keeping outside races in shackles, but the time for liberation is now. These rallying cries ring hollow, given the film’s shortcomings when they should send shivers darting up spines. Or strike fear, where necessary. Respect towards Gabourey Sidibe’s flirtatious gal friend to Veronica and her take-no-shit attitude, how one combats prejudice, but victories are fleeting. Especially given how what should become the film’s rapturous payoff - Monáe, in slow motion, wearing a Yankee jacket, riding through an active battlefield, bursting from the South’s ranks - lands with a whimper where stunning visuals should inspire roars.

Antebellum attempts to move audiences, but it only mourns. Inspiration comes in the form of public executions, hopeless hangings, and beaten-bloody faces. Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz choose to exploit rather than revere, which is the film’s ultimate mistake. A mistake that many Black critics have called out. For example, Robert Daniels notes “Ten years ago, at least by comparison to Amistad, this slave-horror would have sufficed as progress.” The “progress” Antebellum hopes to promote is not exhibited in Bush and Renz’s filmmaking, which falls back on violence, traumatization, and a messy script that stifles its own voice. A horror film with no fangs, a condemnation of racial frustrations stuck in old-world reenactments, captures “our moment” in sloppy, deceptively unthoughtful fashion. There are too many more inspiring examples of genre representation rooted in a desire to be part of the change, not relive the past with almost masochistic servitude.

Antebellum will be available on VOD on September 18th.

Matt Donato

Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.