Released: 1st October
Seen: 7th October
In my review of Vampires vs The Bronx I opened with a lengthy paragraph about how great Horror is when it’s used as a metaphor for some kind of social issue. Race is one that pops up a lot in horror, the genre has always been a useful way to put that issue into ways that can be understood by all. If you would like to know more about the history of race in horror cinema I suggest you go watch Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror which is easy to find, Shudder put it up for free and I’m linking you to it so go and learn. Go and learn so then you can come back here and sit with me as I try to understand why Antebellum just didn’t work for me as much as it could’ve.
Antebellum, as the title implies, opens in what appears to be the Antebellum south during the Confederacy where a bunch of slaves are working the fields. We focus on one in particular, Eden (Janelle Monae) who spends her days just trying to get by and for the longest time we’re watching what seems to be a standard slavery film… right up until the first of many shifts that reveal that this might not be the actual confederacy period, Eden is more than what she seems and there is something very strange going on.
The message of Antebellum is really interesting, showing us how the attitudes that led to the confederacy are still alive and well (even though the confederacy lasted only 4 years… this blog will last longer than the stupid confederacy did and anyone who wants to claim it was an important part of their family history is dumb and a liar). They get pretty explicit about showing how those attitudes still seem to hang on, we’re talking having a scene where a bunch of morons in ill-fitting outfits start marching around with flaming torches yelling ‘blood and soil’. It fits in perfectly with the confederacy setting.
Why Antebellum doesn’t work comes down to when they finally play their reveal card and show us that Eden is actually a modern day woman named Veronica (this isn’t a spoiler, it’s in the trailer and a massive amount of the promotion for this film). We don’t get the actual reveal of who she is until the middle of the film where they do a big dump of exposition and that’d be fine except there is no hint at all in the first part of the film that she’s not from the period portrayed.
You could, theoretically, edit out the entire middle sequence (and a couple of shots from the ending) and pass this off as a period piece based on the performances. That’d be fine if the entire point of the film wasn’t about this juxtaposition between time periods and how the attitudes continue. Actually putting a modern day black woman in the Antebellum south would be horrific and what’d make it horrific is watching a modern woman who knows her history coming face to face with it… they don’t do that, it’s played so straight that the idea they’re trying to sell doesn’t quite come across.
It’s also not helped that Antebellum feels like there’s been some serious bad edits made, there’s just something off with the editing so it never really gets momentum going. Hell, I hate to point it out but there’s big moments in the trailer that aren’t actually here and while that’s normally not too big a concern, here it suggests that a lot of big moments that could’ve given this film some extra tension were removed in favour of extra reminders that the confederacy was bad. I mean, most intelligent people knew that already and didn’t need the reminder, but thanks? The editing keeps the film from being scary, it’s just upsetting because we have to watch a half hour of black people suffering without doing anything interesting with it.
The part of Antebellum that is objectively great, honestly the reason you should see this even if it doesn’t quite work like it should, is Janelle Monae who should frankly be in more things. She’s incredible, every single second of her performance is amazing. The main reason I have problems with the film not going far enough with its ideas is because they have this incredible lead actress who could’ve done so much more than they gave her, they’re holding her back and I want to see her go for it. She’s on another level here, she runs circles around everyone else and it’s amazing. Seriously, how is she not the most famous artist on the planet right now? How is that not her destiny?
What Antebellum needed was to take this idea of a woman from modern times stuck in the Antebellum south and push it to its limit. Actually show the difference in attitude, be out there and weird and wild. We don’t need “12 Years A Slave, but there’s a scoop of horror movie in it”, I wanted to see more of this woman triumphing over the bullshit confederacy, the little moments I got were nice (the image of racists on fire might be the best image of the year) but it feels like there’s something missing, some key ingredient that would’ve made this work so much better. Basically, make a goddamn horror movie with this setting instead of just making a historical drama with some added seasoning.
Antebellum isn’t awful, it has an important message about how racism is still just as insidious as ever and we are well on our way to another period where the racists are in charge. It has a great lead performance and some great visuals every now and then but there’s just something missing, something feels like it’s been cut out that holds the film back. I want to love this film, I admire a large amount of it, but it’s really hard to love something that felt like it had more to give.