'Get Out' was a rare film that managed to be a box office smash, a critical success, and a cultural moment all at the same time. Jordan Peele's horror film looked at the terror and fear that black men in America live in, even from well-meaning white liberals. Not only did it break the record for the highest-grossing original debut and highest-grossing original horror film ever, but it inspired a fresh wave of horror films that tackled socially relevant issues and uncovered the "monsters" all around us. And that's great! Horror is a genre that lends itself to political messaging, often reflecting societal fears at the time. You just need the right amount of finesse to pull it off, something that writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz's struggle to muster for their debut feature, 'Antebellum'.
The film opens with a long tracking shot that establishes the setting in a similar way to Ari Aster's 'Midsommar'. We're in a plantation in what looks to be the titular Civil War era American South, where the protagonist, Eden (Janelle Monáe, 'Hidden Figures') briefly appears. In the cotton fields, a male slave, presumably a caught runaway, is fitted with an iron yoke while his wife attempts to flee. She is pursued by Confederate States Army soldiers on horseback, lassoed around the neck by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston, 'The Irishman') and executed with a pistol. It's an ugly scene, but spectacularly filmed by cinematographer Pedro Luque ('The Girl In The Spider's Web', 'Don't Breathe'), whose work here is excellent.
New slaves are brought to the plantation. Among them is a pregnant woman (a powerful Kiersey Clemons, 'Sweetheart', 'Hearts Beat Loud') whom the plantation owner, Elizabeth (an overacting Jena Malone, 'The Public', 'Nocturnal Animals'), places in the care of Eden, the servant of a Confederate general referred to only as Him (Eric Lange, 'Wind River').
While there are scenes of torture and violence on the plantation, they are mild compared to the many other films and TV series that have covered slavery and human trafficking. This isn't '12 Years A Slave' or 'Django Unchained'. Bush and Renz aren't masters of nerve-shredding anticipation or unblinking sadism like Steve McQueen or Quentin Tarantino. At it's worst, the brutality feels exploitative and trashy.
After 30 minutes or so, we are introduced to Veronica Henley (also played by Janelle Monáe), a renowned sociologist with a loving family, living an affluent lifestyle in the present day. She takes a trip to Louisiana to speak at a seminar and promote her new book. Later, she meets up with her girlfriends for a light-hearted night out on the town. One of the besties, Dawn, is played by Gabourey Sidibe ('Grimsby'). Perhaps the filmmakers were trying to subvert expectations by featuring a plus-sized black woman who was confident and attractive, but her dialogue renders Sidibe's character as distractingly domineering, rude, and obnoxious. We spend way too much time around her.
While 'Get Out' worked because it used subtlety and subversion to get its point across while also being scary, 'Antebellum' is like a wrecking ball hitting you over the head with each character's personalities.
How do Eden and Veronica's plotlines fit together? I was hoping there would be some type of clever narrative device to connect the different periods of time, but the movie is deliberately manipulative. Once the massive M. Night Shyamalan-lite plot twist is revealed, instead of appreciating Bush and Renz's sleight of hand, it actually makes earlier scenes seem stupid. It's cheap storytelling: playing games and omitting key details just to sell the illusion, purely for the sake of tricking the audience.
There are some painfully obvious plot devices sprinkled throughout 'Antebellum' that don't feel organic to the story, like a picture of Veronica as an equestrian in her house and a moment where she's doing her best baby cobra yoga pose. These fleeting scenes have huge and unintentionally hilarious significance later in the film.
While 'Get Out' worked because it used subtlety and subversion to get its point across while also being scary, 'Antebellum' is like a wrecking ball hitting you over the head with each character's personalities. In a film that asks a lot from its audience in order to take it seriously, having realistic dialogue helps smooth that acceptance. So, if every line is Twitter buzzwords and platitudes, or prophetic and mystical, it loses impact, especially when the hammer for the protagonist's situation has already been dropped. We don't need the cruelty of dialogue about the past haunting us or how silence is complicity. We especially don't need a long monologue from Gabourey Sidibe to a dude in a restaurant about his pickup technique or Jena Malone explaining the entire plot during a frantic brawl.
In a film this blunt, it's unsurprising that the bad guys are so cartoonishly vile that their actions seem like cruelty for the sake of it. They aren't even that good at being villains - they are quite dumb and are easily thwarted (see: Craig Zobel's 'The Hunt' for further reference). By portraying racists as one-dimensional slavery fetishists, 'Antebellum' does itself an injustice by failing to communicate how subtle and insidious racism really is.
As someone who has been enjoying the renewed focus on black horror and the rise in storytelling from unique perspectives kickstarted by 'Get Out', it makes my heart sink to see something like 'Antebellum' stumble into cinemas. My fear is that if there are enough negative appraisals of the genre and the discourse shrinks, the film industry will just stop producing socially conscious horror movies, point-blank. The biggest sin that 'Antebellum' commits is that the filmmakers took one of the most horrific periods of American history and, via exceedingly clumsy execution, unintentionally made it into a joke.