Antebellum, or Black identity understood strictly in terms of suffering
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
‘Antebellum’ is brought to you by the producer of ‘Get Out’ and, more importantly, a year full of U.S. racial tensions.
This story contains spoilers for the film ‘Antebellum’.
The premise of the movie is based on a “what if”. What if modern black Americans could, at any moment, get abducted and taken to Civil War styled slave plantations where equally modern, white Americans are running amok with violent, racist fantasies - and no one knows?
The movie begins by depicting the photographic, neat in its predictability, appearance and attitude of the inhabitants of a slave plantation in the American South: Slaves are solemnly working under the strict eye of Confederate soldiers; Everyone’s outfits are prim and clean; Interaction between the subdued slaves and their captors is kept to a minimum; Corporeal punishment and murder happen in broad daylight.
In this environment, Eden, the pet-slave of the nameless “General”, is trying to survive horrific day-to-day abuse with the ultimate goal of escaping. For the first forty minutes of the movie, audiences are bombarded with brutal scenes of the inhumane, degrading treatment that the slaves are subjected to. Finally, after getting branded and raped, Eden goes to sleep…and wakes up as successful writer and activist Veronica Henley who travels around the country to promote her book and give interviews, when she is not spending time with her loving family in a lavish home. This is the moment where the film’s Faulkner quote “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” loses a considerable amount of gravitas: the filmmakers start beating you over the head with literal interpretations, as soon as the revelation than rather than a dream transition, the Eden/Veronica (portrayed by an exquisite Janelle Monáe) dichotomy actually points to a flashback.
Moreover, the opportunity to draw subtle, poignant parallels between the plights of 19th century and contemporary African Americans is further thrown out of the window, as the movie opts for surface level references that strictly fall along a black-skin-equals-being-victimized, white-skin-equals-being-an-aggressor dividing line instead of a better thought-out, more organic commentary on internalized or systemic racism. Take for example the scene where the black female protagonist is initially ignored by the receptionist when trying to book a table, only to be ultimately given the worst table in the room, or the very quick reference to the “angry black woman” stereotype, during the seminar scene. Perhaps the message would have been more potent and less simplistic if the receptionist was black or if the seminar wasn’t attended by an all-black audience.
These nuanced scenes almost feel out of place in a narrative where shock value is achieved by the portrayal of physical exploitation (rape, miscarriage as a result of brutality, murder), rather than intricate, omnipresent racial injustice. They are quickly forgotten in the barrage of violence that permeates the whole movie anyway. Over and over during the course of a film whose main premise is not very believable to begin with, black characters are being sadistically abused by caricature-looking, depth-lacking, evil, white characters: they are specifically handpicked in order to be taken to the white supremacists’ Disneyland; they are subjected to continuous torture; they are forced to play along with the antebellum fantasy.
And yet, these are not illiterate, hapless black folks actually born and raised in the slave plantations of antebellum America. Why are they shown to either comply with their designated roles in Stanford Experiment fashion or simply choose death, whereas Eden/Veronica manages to come up with a plan to escape and even majorly fucks up all of the main villains, Django-style, on her way out?
Because she is an educated, well-off black female, an unforgivably successful representative of her “kind” and, as such, an extraordinary prize for the deranged white racists. And…there goes the movie’s opportunity to smartly engage with the concept of intersectionality. Is this really the best we can do when it comes to Black representation?
In conclusion, ‘Antebellum’ fails to creatively or, at least, refreshingly engage with the psychology of enslavement and the Black experience. The beautiful photography and interesting casting choices don’t make up for the unimaginative plot which doesn’t go much beyond the “what if clandestine, antebellum slave plantations still existed today?” question. The movie lacks the tension-building mastery, sophisticated commentary, and delicious attention to detail of ‘Get Out’ and it definitely lacks the satisfyingly avenging ending of ‘Django’. For that matter, for all of its obsession with violence and manichaistic racial portrayals, it also lacks any of the 110 n-words that Tarantino peppered his script with. In the end, this is, perhaps, the only true plot twist in an otherwise predictable, full of missed opportunities film whose main premise remains unbelievable to the very end.