Antebellum

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Janelle Monáe in Antebellum.
Janelle Monáe in Antebellum.
Photo: Empire Entertainment

OUR RATING

4/5 Stars

WHAT IT'S ABOUT:

Successful author Veronica Henley finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality that forces her to confront the past, present and future – before it's too late.

WHAT WE THOUGHT:

Ever since Jordan Peele's Get Out was released three years ago, there has been a sort of renaissance in the horror genre. The Conjuring helped improve the quality of storytelling in a genre long mocked for its schlock and shallow screams, but the African American experience and collective historical trauma have since become the new shiny playtoy of Hollywood. You just have to look at this year's Halloween line-up, which includes two more black-trauma focussed horrors – Netflix's His House and Hulu's Bad Hair. The one is focussed on the ordeal of a refugee couple while the other is a macabre take on the politics of black women's hair.

Antebellum follows the same vein, focussing on America's slavery history and colliding it with the present. While it was completed before the Black Lives Matter movement, it's rooted in the country's double-edged dance with its Confederate heritage and the blood of African slaves that still haunt the generations battling its legacy.

It will be hard to dive into the story too much without giving the plot away, cleverly hidden in the trailers. The story presents two lives of one woman played by Janelle Monáe – known on a Confederate reformer plantation as Edith and in the present as a famous writer and activist called Veronica. The two worlds are juxtaposed, showcasing how racism and white supremacy have evolved from outright cruel systems to something more insidious and barely hidden beneath the surface.

The film gives the audience no chance to settle in before it starts with its first act of cruelty on the black body, captured in a hauntingly beautiful sequence weaving its way through the cotton plantation. While some scenes were so dark I struggled to see what's going on, it is a beautifully crafted film from a cinematographer's perspective and ends with another impassioned, inspiring scene that acts as a catharsis for the rage of Edith/Victoria.

There is, however, some valid debate over whether the "prettiness' of the film could be seen as shallow, overshadowing the gratuitous violence endured by the black characters that feel similar to the overuse of rape in a woman's character development. They are just props for the directors – one of whom is black himself – to shock the audience without having any real gravitas in their message. Most of the characters are only background noise, which in fairness to horror films is normally the case – they tend to be more about societal critique than engaging character development.

American critics have also been split over the film – some tired of the rehash of black trauma for entertainment while others felt as a horror it fulfilled the requirements of its genre. For me, it was a good film at first watch, though as a white South African it was an uncomfortable watch. I applaud the film for having almost no redeeming white characters (except for a fleeting friend as part of the scenery), which is sometimes added to appease white audience's guilt and need to be "the good guy".

The soldiers and their general are just terrible humans, and the film serves as a critique of some Americans' insistence of clinging to their Confederate history as "part of their heritage". It sounds the same as white South Africans claiming "things were better under apartheid'.

As a horror and general critique of Americans' hesitance to acknowledge its bloody past, Antebellum succeeds in what it set out to do, while it might not live up to the expectations of the more academic-minded film critics. If you're looking for a Halloween horror experience at the cinema though, Antebellum is sure to fulfil your spooky needs.

WATCH THE TRAILER HERE:

Antebellum is now showing in cinemas.

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