‘Antebellum’ Turns the Horrors of Slavery Into Hollywood Tragedy Porn
The new horror movie, starring Janelle Monáe, depicts slavery’s evils “with a ghoulish excess” while refusing to educate or challenge its audience, writes Cassie da Costa.
Antebellum isn’t merely a bad horror-thriller about racism, it’s a bad horror-thriller about racism that takes borrowed, half-digested ideas and transmutes them into a sick game.
In the film, Janelle Monáe plays Eden, an enslaved woman who is brutalized daily by the increasingly victorious Confederate Army troops that now run the plantation, and is planning a collective escape. When we flash generations forward to the life of wealthy Black intellectual Veronica Henley, also played by Monáe, she seems to physically embody some of the trauma that Eden has experienced. The implication of Veronica carrying Eden’s pain is not only that race is a social reality, but that racism can have biological effects—a claim that is, generally speaking, supported by science, but easily extrapolated to draw incorrect and racist conclusions.
Antebellum might have been more worthwhile if the filmmakers were actually curious about the pseudoscience that birthed the concept of race and thus cast chattel slavery as an institution that was not merely logistically possible but, to white authorities, morally ordained. Instead, the film is satisfied in its intellectual limits and aesthetic carelessness—ideas and images are tossed around. What we get is one long, empty experiment.
Writer-director team Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have prefaced the screener that film reviewers receive with their appearance and announcement of an earnest and lofty mission: for Antebellum to awaken conversations about America’s “original sin” of slavery, and tie that legacy to our present. That the filmmakers felt a need to introduce their film by offering an explanation for its brutality and lamenting that it wouldn’t be witnessed in multiplexes across the nation is telling—it’s a statement film, one that has a lot to say and leaves very little room to be seen. As for the mission itself, it’s not exactly difficult to connect U.S. chattel slavery to, say, the prison-industrial complex since countless academics, journalists, and novelists have made it their life’s work to tease out the linkages between these systems. In fact, Bush and Renz might have found a stronger text in Octavia Butler’s Kindred, in which a Black woman living in 1970s Los Angeles is periodically whisked back to 1815 Maryland, where she is enslaved—in Maryland, she comes in contact with free Black people who turn out to be her ancestors; she and her present-day husband, a white man, struggle to heal as much of the past’s harm as is possible for only two people to do.
What Bush and Renz do instead is depict slavery’s evils with a ghoulish excess, a move that doesn’t educate, engage, or challenge audiences but subdues them at best and titillates them at worst. Antebellum’s ending clearly seeks to absolve the filmmakers of this charge, but it’s merely window-dressing to over 100 minutes of tedious manipulation.
Reviewers have compared the film to Westworld, a TV show in which anthropomorphized robots endure an unfailingly brutal theme-park simulation of the American West that rich people pay to pillage. The HBO series succeeds where it examines the mental work of dominance and dehumanization through the lens of artificial intelligence, requiring the showrunners to ask questions about settler-colonialism and American exceptionalism that cannot be neatly resolved. All of the easy symbols—pistols, cowboy boots, vulnerable maidens, drunken outlaws—are broken down by the obvious programmed rehearsal of these symbols by AI and the startling interjections that human involvement provides, and the show finds ways to effectively communicate the endless occurrence of violence without constantly showing it. Antebellum, on the other hand, lavishes in its historical shorthand—Confederates, cotton fields, the brutalization of Black people—in order to imbue its hollow plotting with gravitas.
In this way, Antebellum brings to mind Austrian director Michael Haneke’s now-famous criticism of American director Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, most recently expressed in a Hollywood Reporter writers roundtable clip that’s been circulating (again) on Twitter.
To Haneke, the film turns the Holocaust into an entertainment vehicle—asking the audience to hang on the suspense of will or won’t these Jews be murdered in the gas chamber—an unjustifiable move. Antebellum, in making similar excitement out of slavery, fails to resonate. In comparison, Haneke cites Night and Fog, the 1956 documentary directed by Alain Resnais, as the only successful cinematic attempt to reckon with the Holocaust. The film was written by concentration-camp survivor Jean Cayrol, and Resnais and Cayrol struggled to get the film past French censors not because it was gratuitous, but because it was honest (it’s clear that Antebellum’s filmmakers are unable to discern the difference).
Resnais expressed a desire that Night and Fog serve as a warning for the French about the Algerian War, which was taking place at the time, and much of his filmography is either obliquely or outrightly a commentary on these atrocities. With Antebellum, Bush and Renz don’t seem as interested in what slavery as an institution was or tells us about today as they are in what its aesthetics can do for their story.