Antebellum: I Get It But…

There are continuity issues. For a story that is supposed to have a hard impact on its audience, it becomes a soft target. Opening with a quote by William Faulkner “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” grounds the tale in the thriller genre. It’s pretty traumatic to see ghosts, believe you’re haunted by them or understand that some of the ghosts are within you.

This quote immediately made me yawn. Faulkner is fine. Very readable. But by no means exciting. And in no way near the multiple genres this film attempted to be. The title of one of his well known stories is “As I Lay Dying” which at first seems profound but is an excellent choice if you need to be lulled to sleep. You have to get to the end to have an appreciation of what the author just put you and the characters through.

Which is why Antebellum, directed by Bush | Renz, the two last names of the co-directors, owe some explanation. One can surmise what their intention was, however I’m uninterested in making assumptions about the execution of a heavy topic: Slavery. I’m not a viewer that requires a happy ending. A good tragedy is a good tragedy. A tragedy with an unrealistic ending is a safe way to distract from loose ends.

So back to the beginning. A friend and I were talking about the trailer for this film. We discussed that there must be some sort of simulation occurring within the story. Still, how was this simulation being conducted? If you’re looking for a clear answer to this there is none. Jena Malone, has made so many amazing films and continues to be a part of independent and radical projects. But in the same way she could not save To Old to Die Young (she was marketed as being a particular character in the show but I couldn’t watch enough episodes to actually see her), her presence in this film is lacking. Not to be confused with stellar acting. Jena Malone is the quintessential acTOR and makes every mundane or strange character her own personal trophy.

But this is supposed to be about Janelle Monáe’s character, Veronica, a successful Black entrepreneur. She’s a TedX talk with a personal trainer and a perfect life. The problem begins with the way the trailer attempted to sell the film and what the film actually accomplished. A combination between Hostile and 12 Years a Slave. Historically accurate-Trauma porn. Perhaps this is harsh. Still, the first portion of the film gives you nothing but Roots.

Then you discover the ruse. But this knowledge does not explain how it is done or maintained. The story only reveals that slave catchers still exist, in another form, just like the overseer. Yet there was no proper overseer, only men dressed as Confederate soldiers. The inconsistencies do not enhance the mystery, but confuse a thinking person. Much like when other slaves approach Veronica, know on the plantation as Eden, about “when”, alluding to some discussion of escaping. Almost as if she attempted an escape before. But she’s frozen in fear, living the reality of property.

I have too many questions and I also have too many ideas about what particular symbols or moments mean. I understand that living on a plantation and being controlled by others can create a limited perspective and reduce real life experiences. However, given the situation in this film, there is an imbalance between what a slave might do after generations of abuse and an educated and economically thriving Black person in modern day. Veronica is asked “what is this?” by a slave new to the plantation. A clue to the audience but not something that is answered truly. Perhaps “this” is a willingness to be controlled, to not seek freedom, to forget yourself.

Had the film included tangible information or experiences about a first attempt at an escape from this place, then the continuation of the story and the goal of freedom by any means would make better sense. But our protagonist is stuck in her trauma. Black women are the main point of showing the audience the extent of this violent life.

The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror iterations of science fiction, fantasy and hard core political/humanitarian undertones are purely existential here. I found myself wondering “what did she learn?” Burn it all down if that’s what it comes to? Aight.

There are many good ideas and topics to discuss from the film. However, it is questionable whether or not films like this need to be made; or, rather, edited as they are—to highlight the true intentions of contemporary racists.

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