Antebellum Review: Social Commentary or Slavery Porn?

Antebellum review

Antebellum begins as a new group of enslaved Black people are brought to a Louisiana cotton plantation. Eden (Janelle Monáe) is forced to care for Julia, a pregnant woman and fellow captive of the Confederate General known only as ‘Him.’ They work together to survive, but the alliance is short-lived. When Julia speaks to a Confederate soldier out of tuns, he beats her until she miscarries. Not long afterwards, Eden discovers Julia’s corpse hanging from the cabin’s rafters. Antebellum starts as it means to continue: with the relentless suffering of Black characters.

The violence often feels gratuitous. Before her death, Julia is the victim of a brutal sexual assault – which in no way enhances the story. There is a crematorium where the enslaved Black people are forced to burn the bodies of their runaway comrades, to stop them getting any ideas about escape. Eden is beaten bloody with a belt as punishment for rejecting her slave name. And she is raped by ‘Him’.

But all is not as it appears. After the assault, Eden has a flashback. She’s a celebrated sociologist, Veronica Henley. Veronica lives not in the past, but the present day. And she has it all: a loving husband, an adorable daughter, a beautiful home, and a successful career. While visiting Louisiana to promote her new book, Veronica is kidnapped and taken to the plantation.

Janelle Monae in Antebellum

This perceived shift in timeline has shades of Octavia Butler’s masterpiece, Kindred. But whereas Kindred kept Dana’s humanity in focus whether she was free or enslaved, Antebellum exploits Black pain for shock value. Again. And again. And again.

The other obvious comparison is Get Out, a horror film where white people took possession of Black people’s bodies to prolong their own lives. But whereas Jordan Peele’s film gave a whip-smart analysis of race in modern day America, challenging white consumption of Black culture, Antebellum falls short of delivering a similar message.

After her stunning performance in Homecoming season 2, we at team AfterEllen were keen to see Monáe in her next big role. But Antebellum was a waste of that momentum. The movie fails to showcase her full range as an actress. For much of the film, her character Eden is forced to be silent. Slaves on the cotton plantation are only allowed to talk if given permission by a white overseer. There’s little of the charismatic delivery that usually makes Monáe a pleasure to watch on screen.

While she’s easily the most interesting thing about Antebellum, there’s a limit to what even the Electric Lady can do with a script that largely reduces Black women to their suffering. Fans drawn in by her role in the recent Harriet Tubman biopic will be especially disappointed.

Antebellum’s attempts to tackle white supremacy are at best ham fisted. During the film’s climax, the plantation’s boss is killed when she slams into a statue of Robert E. Lee and breaks her neck. This chase scene had all the subtlety of Wile E. Coyote pursuing the Road Runner. What social commentary the film does offer is eclipsed by its descent into slavery porn.

Hollywood’s love affair with slavery stories began almost eighty years ago, with the release of Gone with the Wind. As well as romanticizing marital rape, this classic film looks at slavery through rose-tinted glasses. It’s not a coincidence that Hattie McDaniel became the first African-American woman to win an Oscar after playing Mammy, the racist fantasy of a Black maternal figure whose love is reserved for the white children in her care. And this fixation with slavery stories has continued through the decades. Twelve Years a Slave was met with near universal praise when it came out in 2013. Virtually no other film with a Black director and Black actors in the lead roles has ever won so many awards.

Too often, the only Black stories the film industry is interested in telling and rewarding hinge upon our trauma. Stories of Black love, Black joy, and Black imagination continue to be overlooked by Hollywood. Films that uplift Black people continue to be less popular and less well funded than films that show our people oppressed and in pain. The real horror of Antebellum is that $15 million was spent on glorifying Black suffering.