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film review

Janelle Monae, left, and London Boyce in a scene from Antebellum.The Canadian Press

  • Antebellum
  • Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz
  • Starring Janelle Monáe, Eric Lange and Gabourey Sidibe
  • Classification R; 105 minutes

Rating:

2 out of 4 stars


I don’t need to see any more slave narratives. I can’t (and don’t) speak for all Black people, of course, but I personally am exhausted of seeing this same historical trauma continually played as entertainment.

The films that often fall into these conversations about cinema’s slave narrative exhaustion (the most recent and highly polarizing example of this being Kasi Lemmons’s Harriet) tend to have larger budgets and notable directors. If not a prestige film, they certainly lend themselves a self-laudatory importance by virtue of their narrative content alone.

These are “serious” films and, thus, they have been made with a “serious” intent, a loaded act of cultural positioning and PR work that shallowly tries to shield both these stories and their creators from being held accountable for the ways in which their apathy and clear lack of concern or even opinion operates on screen. As if having roots in lived history means that storytelling cannot be held responsible for the things that it shows (or, perhaps more importantly, doesn’t).

This isn’t to say that these types of stories shouldn’t be made, but more so to point out that the way in which they have been made thus far (and, frankly, continue to be made) is both largely uninspired and retraumatizing. That these films haven’t changed much in their intention (never mind narrative or even formal innovations) since Steven Spielberg’s The Color Purple speaks volumes.

For those who haven’t already, we must ask ourselves: What is the true purpose of these stories? Because it is clearly not any sort of communal healing work or, as they are so often lauded to be, an “important” way to share our histories. And, moreover, from an industry or market standpoint, it is simply stale and uninventive filmmaking.

There’s a reason why films like Jordan Peele’s strikingly original Get Out and the coming Nia DaCosta-directed Candyman reboot have been so highly praised and anticipated: They take narratives rooted in Black historical traumas and rework them into generically transformative stories that are refreshingly true to experience.

They offer new ways to be seen as we (and our ancestors) have lived in our histories, as well as realize the fantastical ways in which we have been able to claim our autonomies within those realities, whether it be figurative, literal or otherwise. At their best, they point to the Black futures that we know must exist.

Which is why writer/director duo Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz’s first feature film, Antebellum, is such a disappointment. Unlike Peele’s Get Out, a similarly genre-bending film that Antebellum will (rightfully) be compared to, Bush and Renz’s generic twists work only superficially. Are they entertaining in and of themselves? Yes. Do they have an impact or transformative function outside of themselves? Not really.

The Janelle Monáe-led feature borrows its premise heavily from celebrated science-fiction author Octavia E. Butler’s 1979 novel, Kindred, wherein a Black woman living in the present day is wrenched through time to Antebellum Maryland. In Bush and Renz’s film, Monáe’s modern woman, Veronica Henley, is a celebrated author and speaker on race, gender and class who also mysteriously exists within the film as Eden, an enslaved woman living in the Antebellum South.

Without spoiling the film’s main mechanics, the ways in which it plays with time and generic expectation are certainly original on paper, but they fall deeply short of communicating any sort of intelligently imaginative intention outside of their novelty. For a film that spends much of its runtime portraying, without any narrative or generic upending, the violence that Black people, and specifically Black women, have lived through in North America, its twists and turns don’t make the emotional ramifications of watching these realities depicted so uncritically and, perhaps even pointlessly, onscreen worth it.

Antebellum is a film that lives smugly within its final reveal – and what’s worse, this reveal is more groan-inducing than anything else.

If it had not taken as its twin-pronged narrative approach the subject of Black chattel slavery, this ending might even be bad enough to be considered funny by those of us who sincerely enjoy schlocky, ham-fisted moments of unintended narrative rupture.

It’s an ending that casually discards what is perhaps one of its most productive lines of thinking – a thought likewise recently queried by genealogist and Nomini Hall Slave Legacy Project organizer LaTonya Lawson-Jones: “If Black people epigenetically inherit trauma from slavery from our ancestors, what do the descendants of overseers and slave owners inherit?”

Antebellum trades the honesty of such questions for narrative turns that, while some might find them interesting (or at least novel) in their moment of realization, are otherwise short-lived and unsatisfying. At the end of the day, if this is what contemporary slave narratives are belatedly evolving into, I’m not sure that the genre is worth rehabilitating.

Antebellum is available digitally on-demand starting Sept. 18

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