Antebellum review – the horrors of slavery repackaged as entertainment

Janelle Monáe stars in a lushly shot thriller that fails to justify its subject matter with anything resembling social commentary

There’s an increasingly wariness of slavery dramas. Must suffering always be the lens on Black lives? On the other hand though, the success of Get Out has Hollywood excited about the genre flick’s potential to interrogate America’s oldest, truest horror. Caught in the middle is Antebellum, starring Janelle Monáe: a film that attempts so much and fails at almost all of it.

Debut writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz offer an early display of proficiency with a tracking shot across an old south plantation: the “big house”, the cotton fields, the Spanish moss and the slave quarters, all handsomely bathed in the magic-hour glow and, later, by flickering candlelight. Acts of violent suppression happen in balletic slo-mo, allowing time to observe that some period details seem strangely off. These hints culminate in a mobile ringtone that seems to shift Monáe’s character – apparently a brutalised slave called Eden – to a new reality.

She fell asleep next to her rapist and enslaver, but she wakes up surrounded by her loving family in their comfortable home. “Eden” is now “Veronica”, a prominent sociologist in 21st-century US, whose high-flying career takes her to a speaking engagement in New Orleans, and dinner out with friends (Gabourey Sidibe among them).

This is a better life, certainly, but it is progress depicted in the shallowest terms. Veronica’s supposedly nourishing friendships are nothing but stereotypical sass and self-care prattle; her supposedly fiery politics consist of strung-together platitudes. The Black woman at Antebellum’s centre is as one-dimensional as the evil white racists on its peripheries. When one of these commences a whipping by saying, “It brings me no joy to do this”, the claim rings doubly false.

Antebellum offers neither a coherent social commentary nor – thanks to its pat, ahistorical ending – a revenge thriller’s catharsis. What else, besides entertainment, could its purpose be?

• Antebellum is released on 2 April on Sky Cinema.


Ellen E Jones

The GuardianTramp

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