Contains spoilers for “Antebellum”
Though delayed from its initial April premiere due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film “Antebellum” may have been better left unreleased. The movie follows Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe), a modern Black feminist activist who mysteriously awakens on a Civil War-era cotton plantation. The film leans into its anachronistic premise throughout the first act: Small fragments of unaligning time periods are littered throughout the plantation, from 19th century Confederate soldier types chanting Nazi slogans to commercial planes flying overhead.
“Antebellum” fulfils very few expectations. It’s not simply a mediocre film — though it would be hard to argue otherwise, considering its poorly written characters and whiplash-inducing pacing. Its visual style is superficially compelling, but too often undermines substance for a flashy cinematic gimmick. But it’s precisely these flaws, coupled with a superficial presentation of racial politics, that mark “Antebellum” as a pointless, even harmful exercise in filmmaking, doing more to undermine the beliefs it tries to stand for.
This pattern of undermining itself persists throughout the movie, but becomes especially apparent in the midstory twist when Veronica awakens in her comfortable studio apartment. “Antebellum” takes deliberate care in showing that Veronica is an academic: She is in the middle of a tour for her latest book, and has kept busy with appearances on cable news networks.
Monáe admittedly brings as much charm to the role as possible. But given her character’s ostensibly nuanced positions, her commentary is composed almost entirely of vapid, pseudo-political nonsense. While other characters — particularly her uncomfortably sassy-stereotyped friend Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) — praise her supposed rhetorical talent, Veronica actually speaks in a Mad Lib of buzzwords and Assata Shakur quotes that give the faint impression of wokeness.
Charitable criticism of these flaws is that they’re due to a lazy, ill-considered script. This writing, however, renders “Antebellum” utterly meaningless: Instead of making a clear argument toward progressive politics, the film is an abstract Rorschach test from which audiences can interpret just about any conviction. Is Veronica an intersectional activist icon, let down only by poorly researched screenwriting? Or is the emptiness and contradiction of her rhetoric an intentional choice, making her a satire on lofty academia and the intersectional feminist movement as a whole?
Though it’s certain that the film’s creators favor the progressive interpretation, “Antebellum” offers plenty of bait for audiences who would rather take a more reactionary approach. The escape sequence is a particular offender, applying horror genre conventions to its protagonists. In framing Veronica’s flexibility as body horror and her companions’ stealthy movements as jump scares, “Antebellum” stylistically muddles who the ones to be afraid of really are in these given scenes.
While the climactic twist toward the film’s end seems compelling on paper, revealing that the plantation is actually a modern-day role-playing attraction for white supremacists, “Antebellum” sees this turning point through in the least thought-provoking way possible. Its villainous white supremacist antagonists are just that — reduced to their shallow motivation to enact violence on Black people. “Antebellum” rightfully does not build sympathy for these characters, but in stripping them of any deeper motivation beyond simple sadism, “Antebellum” side steps having to make a nuanced statement about the real effects of systemic racism in the United States.
If the movie had premiered as slated April 24, it would have been released only weeks ahead of the national reinvigoration of Black Lives Matter protests. “Antebellum” is a failure of a film no matter its release date, but its insensitivities are made even more apparent when released during the national conversation that these demonstrations have sparked.
“Antebellum” criticizes the most extreme forms of white supremacy, but offers little to no commentary on the covert, just as harmful behaviors of less hyperbolized actions. This approach leaves an astounding magnitude of racial prejudice out of the critical picture.
It’s for these reasons that “Antebellum” is beyond counterproductive. After the most widespread and galvanizing protests in recent history, this kind of unchallenging, poorly considered rhetoric does more harm than good. It reduces real, ingrained and unconscious prejudices to their most simplistic and Hollywood-washed, simultaneously rendering activist undertones utterly incoherent.