By: Kevin Jordan
It takes a village.
As we continue to face and confront the reality that racism is still deeply ingrained in American society and culture, we continue to uncover more and more evidence that maybe the Civil War never really ended. Yes, slavery was technically outlawed as a result of the Civil War, but that did not stop slave holders and their future generations from finding ways to continue enslaving Black people. The Reconstruction Era was over almost before it began, followed by the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, which brought the Jim Crow Era, etc., etc. The 1960s brought a brief ray of hope and light in the form of Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, the Civil Rights Act, and the Voting Rights Act, but Republicans have done everything they can since to destroy any gains made by Black people (and all other people of color, for that matter) through gerrymandering, voter suppression tactics (with an assist from the Supreme Court’s despicable 2013 decision – Shelby County v Holder – which opened the floodgates of overt voter suppression in many states), weakening of unions and organized labor, minimum sentencing laws for drug users, etc., etc., all which disproportionately affect minorities. Look no further than the treatment of Colin Kaepernick and Barack Obama to see how virulent racism still is. And those are just the big ways. Antebellum brings one of the smaller, seemingly innocuous, instances of systemic racism still on display in the country into the light – Civil War Reenactments.
To be fair, many of the reenactments are extremely accurate recreations of Civil War battles, dress, and weaponry, but are they really all that different from simply hoisting a Confederate battle flag over a statehouse or erecting giant statues of General Lee? Yes, history can be learned from these reenactments, but there many other ways to learn history. Museums, books, and documentaries still exist. But I am calling bullshit on the vast majority of people claiming they do reenactments for educational purposes. Like any other cosplay, the primary reason is because it is fun for the people involved. There is no risk of injury or death and people get to pretend to kill other people. It’s paintball in really uncomfortable clothes. And pretending that the most important thing to learn about the Civil War is what a soldier went through during a battle is as offensive as it sounds when the soldier in grey was fighting to keep Black people as slaves. And if you need proof that most reenactments want nothing to do with the topic of slavery as the entire cause of the Civil War, go to a reenactment, find one of the performers who claims to be an expert on a Confederate general, and ask questions related to slavery and racism and see how much history gets bestowed. Also, ask them when the next reenactment of a slave auction is scheduled because you’d like to learn about that history as well. Because teaching history is the point, right?
(Side note: I have been to plenty of Civil War battlefields and museums and read dozens of books on the subject and I can state in no uncertain terms that the battles themselves are the least important part of Civil War history. They are just the most entertaining part.)
(SPOILER ALERT, but only if you have not seen a trailer or synopsis for Antebellum.)
Antebellum takes Civil War reenactments to their logical, if not horrifying, conclusion – reenacting a plantation, actual slaves included. The film is divided into three very distinct acts, presented in an order to provide a big reveal that was helpfully ruined by the film’s trailers. The first act introduces us to a Civil War-era plantation in Louisiana and our protagonist, Eden (Janelle Monae). The only thing suggesting this plantation might not be what it seems is that none of the slaves have southern accents. This doesn’t become apparent until a new batch of slaves is brought and one of them, Julia (Kiersey Clemons), asks Eden what the plan is to escape. Her accent is plainly modern and, since I had not seen a trailer, brought me out of the film. I wondered why the director would allow such a bad accent in a period piece, but then dropped the thought. The act continues with a vivid (and disturbing) display of plantation life for slaves, but never starts to hint at a plot. As the first act wound down with Eden being raped by a Confederate general (Eric Lange), I was starting to get really impatient with a film that appeared to be little more than a Confederate snuff film. Then, the “twist” happened.
Eden wakes up in a modern, luxurious home as PhD Veronica Henley, author, speaker, and civil rights activist. Again, not knowing about this in advance, it was completely jarring to see somebody time-hop forward. This is just not how out-of-body experiences work in movies. For a few minutes, I was really confused, then thought that the first act was a dream. I spent the entirety of the second act trying to spot people and things from the first act to validate my theory, as well as guess what they meant for the third act. When Elizabeth (Jena Malone) appears on a video call with Veronica (Elizabeth also being the matriarch of the plantation), I was sure I was on the right track. Except, nobody else from the plantation was appearing in the present. Her husband (Marque Richardson), her best friend (Gabourey Sidibe), everyone at the hotel and at her conference lecture, none of them were featured at the plantation. I was intrigued, but also annoyed at the same time because there was still no plot and not one character developed outside of Veronica (and she barely, at that).
The big reveal at the end of the second act is Veronica being kidnapped by Elizabeth and Captain Jasper (Jack Huston). Ohhhhhhhh. Now I get it. Probably should have watched the trailer, which literally shows the kidnapping. Which means the focus of the whole third act is how does Veronica escape? Well…that’s kind of boring. I thought the movie was going to have more to say than “there are White people in this country who would jump at the chance to go back to owning slaves.” That’s not really news and we even know who they are since they are kind enough to wear a certain red hat.
More importantly, this twist raises all kinds of questions, most of which have to do with stretching your suspension of disbelief to its breaking point. With the exception of Veronica, none of the slaves we initially meet seem to be interested in escaping at all. Eventually, we learn that one slave, Eli (Tongayi Chirisa) is plotting an escape with Veronica, but the plan is so secret that not even the audience is let in on it until it happens. The hard part of disbelieving this setup is that there is no indication that any of the slaves are being drugged, meaning they all know it’s the year 2020. Are we really expected to believe that all of them have resigned themselves to actual slavery, to the point of behaving like uneducated slaves who forgot what airplanes are? The film excuses this away with a “no talking” rule, but come on. When Julia arrives, she almost immediately starts talking to Julia with no consequence because there aren’t guards stationed in every house, 24/7. This is the point in the film when the escape plan should have been introduced while also throwing in clues about the kidnapping and modern times. Maybe it’s just me, but I like to know the plot of a movie prior to the last twenty minutes. Kinda keeps me interested.
The main problem with the film is it feels like directors/writers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz watched M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, then a Trump rally, high-fived each other on a great idea, and started filming their outline. The film isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is, mainly owing to the lack of writing done to flesh out any characters (including Veronica) or truly plot out how to make the scenario plausible. That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments. Monae is solid, Lange and Huston are all-too-believable as despicable Confederate officers, and Malone is the entire GOP wrapped into a single loathsome person that rivals any Bond villain. And the premise really is interesting. But the overall film is a disappointment because it ended up being much more shallow than it initially promised. Had I seen the trailers before seeing the film, I might have enjoyed it more knowing the twist, but my disbelief still would have been strained. Though, not as strained as when people try to convince us that monuments and flags of traitors should remain standing or flying because they are history (weirdly, those same people don’t want those items inscribed with “these people committed treason in the name of slavery”).
Rating: Ask for eight dollars back and go to a museum.