Review of Antebellum


I was really excited when I learned about the release of the new film starring Janelle Monáe, Antebellum (2020) so when it made its way to video I jumped to pluck down my precious $19.99 to watch the brilliance that I was sure to come.

While I won’t say that I wish I had saved my money—because of who I am and what I do I think it’s important that I be in the know about what’s happening in the realm of African and African diasporic cultural production as much as I can given my other responsibilities—I would caution against the viewer’s inclination to try to glean many take-away life lessons. There are plenty to be found in even sci fi series like Luke Cage (2016) or films like Black Panther (2018) (such as gorgeous black men can be and are indeed super heroes in their own right even when they’re villains—I’m looking at you, Michael B. Jordan), or the adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) which, among other themes, dwells on the attempted destruction of Black love and family in 1960s America, or Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) which reminds us of a myriad number of realities that too many of us have chosen to forget… 

It seems to me that Antebellum is trying to remind “us” that no matter how much “success” we think we have there are powerful forces beyond our fields of perception that are at work to “put us back in our places.” I’m not saying this is not true. All we need to do is look around us at the insidious as well as obvious ways that people who are invested in whiteness are trying to “return” to a time when they believe “America” was great. I am saying that Antebellum doesn’t do a very good job of conveying any relevant or revelatory message or of even being entertaining. Its lack of self-consciousness undermines any gestures that it makes in either direction.

While I’m not one for comparing people’s unique creative expression I must say that unfortunately, Antebellum is nowhere near as smart or nuanced as Get Out. The script is so over the top yet superficial that gifted actors that we’ve seen in other roles—Monáe in Harriet, even with its many issues(2019), for example, or Gabourey Sidonie in Precious (2009)—come off as caricatures rather than real personalities. 

In my not very generous moments I think of Antebellum as Hollywood drivel, not only for what it does, but for the many opportunities that it misses. 

I don’t know how much control the writer and director had over how the movie shaped up, but shame on the genius who made the decision to mislead the potential audience with trailers that made it seem as if the movie was a sci fi flick—from the sudden appearance and disappearance of planes to the creepy washed out nineteenth century little blond girl in the elevator. 

It also plays into the worst stereotypes that continue to plague black women. The stereotypes are laid on so thickly that I found myself mentally going through those that Melissa Harris Perry identifies and analyzes in her wonderful text, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (2013).

We have the Sapphire in Gibonie’s character, Bridget, and the tragic mulatto in Kiersey Clemon’s character, Shoshanna. Monáe’s character, Veronica Henley, alternates between hyper-vigilance and complete obliviousness to what is happening around her—as if the men (and the top five names listed as collaborators on the film are all those of men)—who wrote her character couldn’t figure out which fantasy they preferred. As A.O. Scott astutely observes in his review, “She’s less a person than a signifier — an image of idealized success put on display for the purpose of being trashed.” Oh, and don’t forget the token white friend who “gets it”—ugh!

The creepy washed out little blond girl actually does appear in the movie, which is nuts because at no point in the movie does anyone go back in time, sooo…But airplanes do not flash in and out. That was simply false advertising—a lie perpetrated to sucker people into tuning into a $15 million pile of unfortunateness that I will generously assume was meant for an audience for which the themes that Antebellum dismally tries to explore are new. To them I say, please watch with a veeeeery critical eye. Or skip it. 

Read James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother (2006) (which I’ll be reviewing next week or Walter Mosley’s The Awkward Black Man: Stories (2020) which I just picked up after attending a brilliant discussion with him hosted by Black Classic Press via the magic of zoom. 

Antebellum Review: Look Away Dixie Land: Janelle Monáe Stars in a Muddled Attempt to Revisit the Horrors of American Slavery” by A.O. Scott

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