Premiering on September 18, Antebellum quickly became America’s most-watched video-on-demand movie — as well as one of the worst reviewed, with remarkably low satisfaction scores from critics and audiences. Many watched it, few liked it.
It’s not surprising so many gave it a chance — ever since writer-director Jordan Peele’s hugely successful Get Out, Americans have warmly embraced this new subgenre in which the black experience is rendered as a horror movie. He’s created a cottage industry of these projects, which includes not only the ones he’s involved with as writer-director (Us) or producer (Lovecraft Country), but many other film and TV projects riding the very wave he created.
We definitely need these stories to counter over a hundred years of American film history, especially those countless movies embracing the lugubrious “Lost Cause” narrative, mourning the collapse of a romanticized Southern neverland of noble Confederate soldiers, flirtatious plantation belles, and happy slaves — “a civilization gone with the wind.”
However, Antebellum desperately needs Jordan Peele’s touch. It’s a confused mess about an enslaved woman named Eden (Janelle Monáe) seemingly trapped in the hell of Louisiana plantation life during the Civil War, who in the second act actually turns out to be an ultra-successful, contemporary black American sociologist named Veronica Henley, who — lurching into the third act — actually turns out to be embroiled in something else, again, that constitutes a spoiler for a movie you probably shouldn’t bother to see.
Since the “Antebellum” South of the film’s title is the prewar South, it’s another one of the film’s many what-the-hell plot holes to ponder over considering that the plantation scenes are taking place during the Civil War itself. But look, many of these projects are going to suck.
That’s inevitable, and only dangerous if it winds up killing the general audience appetite for these stories. The key to sustaining a horror film subgenre of great promise is to get people who can write and direct horror specifically. Without that, it can’t last.
Unfortunately, the team that created Antebellum are hopeless at horror. You’d never know it from reading the excited behind-the-scenes accounts of their deal with Lionsgate, the number of fawning interviews they’ve done about Antebellum, or how many times they call themselves “artists,” but the team of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz are mere high-end advertising flacks who created campaigns for Vogue, Porsche, and Harry Winston.
They have connections to Democratic Party big shots like former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who once stopped by their office for advice on “activat[ing] Black voters in the midterms.” Antebellum is their film debut.
It’s still somewhat amazing that even rookies could’ve botched a horror film set on a Southern plantation so badly. Other than Native American burial grounds, no location in America is so haunted as the blood-soaked, magnolia-scented grounds of a Southern plantation, and the directors know this in theory, calling such a location “an open-air haunted house.” But theory isn’t practice.
Check out Toni Morrison’s Beloved, or maybe visit the Myrtles Plantation in Louisiana, the most famous of the haunted plantations. It features a long-standing ghost tour dealing with the legend of the slave Chloe, whose story has inspired episodes of spooky reality TV shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Ghost Hunters. Her ear was cut off for eavesdropping on her white master Clarke Woodruff, and she subsequently fed a lethally poisoned dinner to his wife and children in revenge, for which she was hanged by fellow slaves fearing repercussions.
One of the most terrifying places I ever saw was another plantation house in remote rural Louisiana. The Southern Gothic atmosphere alone was pervasively evil. It was being rented out as a movie location in a vain effort to keep the place from slowly falling in on itself, and the owners were the last of their Southern aristocratic family line — a seedy bachelor son who was extremely old, and his father, who was as ancient as a vampire, and drooled copiously and continuously into a dirty white handkerchief.
The tottering son toured us location scouts around the place, showing us points of interest such as the door to an underground passageway, long collapsed, that used to lead from the “young masters’s” bedroom wing directly to the slave quarters, so they could go on rape treks without offending white ladies or getting their feet wet on rainy nights.
Bush and Renz have no directorial feeling for atmosphere, or for the specific details of slavery that make the horror of it come alive. Their scenes of whippings, brandings, and rapes are handled in the rote manner of directors who’ve seen a lot of movies featuring whippings, brandings, and rapes in the Old South. They don’t seem to understand how to create and control cinematic sensations.
They make a big point in one interview about “shooting the movie on the lenses from Gone with the Wind,” which sounds vaguely impressive in their terms: “Using the same weaponry that was used to misinform and create effective propaganda.”
But it’s a bewildering nonissue in terms of their film’s formal quality. Gone with the Wind was a Technicolor extravaganza, with all the specialized, patented equipment and eye-popping effect for which it was once famous. Antebellum couldn’t and doesn’t evoke the look of Gone with the Wind, so you have to read the publicity material to even get the symbolic gesture.
Watching Antebellum is so boring and frustrating, you have plenty of time to think about how it’s all going wrong from the very first shot. It starts obnoxiously with a “little miss” white girl, a child of the white plantation owners, dressed in a miniature bright yellow crinoline, who skips in slow motion toward her doting mother (Jena Malone). There’s such overwhelming theatrical artifice to the shot that if you’re paying attention, you’re tipped off immediately to the fact that something is wrong about this whole setup. But the problem is it’s way too soon to be tipped off. So when the movie’s big twist is finally revealed, it lands with a thud.
And that’s only the beginning of a very long, pointlessly complex tracking shot, purportedly showing us the workings of Southern plantation life, with many crisscrossings of white plantation family members, slaves, and omnipresent Confederate soldiers who seem to be camping out on the grounds.
It finally ends on our hero Eden’s capture — and the punishment and killing of the slaves who accompanied her. Why put the cast and crew through one of those grueling multi-minute tracking shots that can take days to do, just to accomplish something perfectly straightforward about outbursts of violence emerging from ordinary workdays on plantations?
Bush and Renz seem incapable of staging anything convincingly. The several scenes featuring slaves picking cotton are a good example. Like so many directors these days, they seem unable to research what actual physical labor looks like, so the scenes show us slaves standing upright by unnaturally tall cotton stalks poking feebly at cotton bolls while Captain Jasper (Jack Huston), a satanic combination of overseer and Confederate officer on horseback, rides among them gratuitously leering and tormenting them.
That the point of the plantation system was to get rich raising cash crops dependent on the grueling, ceaseless labor of slaves, each bent over by the hour picking hundreds of pounds of cotton a day, seems not to have occurred to Bush and Renz.
This ignorance of what work looks like continues comically into the contemporary midsection of the film, when the fabulous intellectual celebrity Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe once again) swanks into an academic conference to deliver a paper based on her book advocating racial and gender equality, Shedding the Coping Strategy.
In this reality, which seems even phonier than the plantation stuff, delivering a paper in the typically drab environs of an academic conference looks here like something between a TED Talk and a speech at the Oscars, all miked up and inspirational, with a standing ovation at the end.
This is doubly baffling since director Gerard Bush claims many female academics among his family and friends, and surely he could simply have asked them about the lousy fluorescent-lit hotel conference rooms, the pressed wood and laminate panel tables, and the seated scholars reading their papers in deadening monotones.
After her hit talk, Henley and her friends go out for a luxurious night on the town — the irrepressible Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe), who’s black, and the sardonic Sarah (Lily Cowles), who’s white. Along the way, they deliver rebukes to racist white staff who show them to a bad table in a restaurant, and humiliate a poor nebbishy white guy at a bar who makes the mistake of sending over to Dawn a mere vodka and cranberry cocktail when he should have noted the expensive champagne they were already drinking and bought them another bottle of the same.
I have to admit I didn’t really understand the point of this lengthy scene, which seems to equate snob values with grrrl-power feminism in the form of a mean lecture on nightmare courtship rituals. Again consulting interviews with Bush and Renz, it seems that they considered it “paramount” to show the women “in their full power,” with Dawn in particular “living her best life.”
The question of why this would represent any woman’s full power or best life is another puzzling rabbit hole you could go down as you wile away the time during the duller parts of Antebellum. But what’s the point? Let’s just reaffirm that we continue to hope for better things from the black American horror film subgenre.
Admittedly, there’s an X factor in directing horror, with certain formal effects creating fear for reasons that aren’t entirely clear and require directorial instinct to pull off, which Bush and Renz seem to lack. For example, if you can judge the distance in a long shot of a monstrous entity in relation to the human viewing it, you can create a lasting moment of terror. Just think of the twin girls in the hallway of The Shining. Jordan Peele seems able to judge that distance, as we see when the “replacement” family stands in shadow, holding hands, at the end of the driveway in Us.
But one very concrete thing that tends to work in horror is a certain directness and simplicity in the basic plot setup that allows the details of sinister atmosphere and scary developments to come to the fore. Examples: a few survivors of attacks by people risen from their graves take refuge in an old farmhouse and spend a night fighting off the “living dead”; a psychotic child who’s institutionalized for killing his sister on Halloween breaks out as an adult and returns to his hometown on another Halloween murder rampage; an alcoholic writer gets a job as caretaker at a huge hotel in the mountains which is closed for the winter, and settles in with his anxious wife and troubled psychic son for six months of total isolation; or a young black man goes with his white girlfriend to visit her parents in their country home where discomfort over everyday racism in the white “liberal” enclave soon turns to terror as it becomes clear that something very bad happens to black people who go there.
That last film described is of course Get Out, Peele’s amazingly sure-handed debut film. He doesn’t make the initial mistake of Bush and Renz, who probably sold their script on the dubious merits of convoluted plotting with multiple big reveals, that the reality we’re shown is a false front soon to give way to another part of the total reality.
In general, it helps to allow the audience to macerate in the awful effects of one nightmarish scenario which reveals its terrors over time, and with so-called horror noire, the black experience is rife with just such scenarios. Consider the plot of Jordan Peele’s forthcoming sequel to Candyman (1992).
It’s about a black artist living in the newly gentrified Cabrini-Green apartment building, a once-notorious housing project where people of color were abandoned to poverty and crime. He’s haunted by the murderous ghost of a nineteenth-century black artist known as “Candyman,” the son of a slave who’d attained wealth through white patronage and then was lynched for falling in love with a white woman.
It’s unfortunate that Peele is only cowriting and producing this film, when his directing skills are most needed!