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Antebellum is an infuriating film that contorts itself in order to pull off an excruciatingly banal twist. It is ambitious, attempting to peel back just what Making America Great Again would involve, but stops short of having any insight into racism, nostalgia or indeed its own main character.
Janelle Monáe is wasted on the part of Eden, a slave on a plantation run by Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. The slaves are gleefully tortured, branded, raped and murdered by the Confederates, who don’t allow them to speak unless spoken to. Having rendered most of the cast mute, the first act relies on stylised scenes of empty brutality, never giving any interiority to either the slaves or the slave-masters. Presenting the Confederates as moustache-twirling pantomime villains with no motivations beyond an overwhelming hatred of Black people is increasingly tedious as the film goes on.
The second act switches to the present day and Veronica, also played by Monáe, a wealthy author and activist with a loving husband and daughter. Impeccably styled, she delivers hackneyed lectures and politely ignores a myriad of micro-aggressions from every white person she encounters. How are she and Eden connected? Within 10 minutes you will likely have come up with several more interesting possibilities than the eventual answer.
A more important question is why so much of this film is dedicated to Veronica’s uneventful dinner with her painfully stereotyped sassy friend (Gabourey Sidibe)? Or why the film neglects to give us any real sense of the characters, or answer any of the truly intriguing questions about how its premise could possibly work? It all builds to a supposedly triumphant finale which in actuality is hollow and gratuitous.
The film’s satirical ambitions are clear, but it subjects its Black characters to unceasing physical and sexual violence without making a salient point about white supremacy. The implication that all white Americans would participate in the horrors of slavery given half a chance is unconvincing because the film fails to imbue anyone on screen with discernible motives, nuance or humanity. The directors, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, have stated their ambition to create “the movie of and for this moment” but have succeeded only in evoking a familiar feeling of despair.
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Sight & Sound Summer 2021
In our current (double) issue we hand centre stage to 100 hidden heroes of cinema who have shaped film history. Plus Ben Wheatley on In the Earth, Emma Seligman’s Shiva Baby, Victor Kossakovsky’s pig portrait Gunda, Jane Fonda interviewed, Limbo and refugees on film, and a look back at My Own Private Idaho. Available in print and digitally.Find out more and get a copy