Movies

Antebellum Is Empty Social Commentary Disguised as a Horror Movie

It's a one-note, one-twist concept in search of a story.

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For decades, horror movies have been vehicles for social commentary. In 1968, director George Romero's genre-defining zombie film, Night of the Living Dead, served (perhaps inadvertently) as a parable about American racism; its '70s sequel, Dawn of the Dead, tackled soulless consumerism and suburban ennui. By the time the series reached the George W. Bush era, with 2005's Land of the Dead, Romero transformed the unending war between humans and zombies into a darkly comic riff on class division and wartime propaganda. His movies were tense, gory affairs about a fantastical otherworld in which the shuffling, flesh-eating undead regularly chased terrified civilians through homes and roads and shopping malls. They were also about the very particular, very normal real world that he, and his viewers, lived in. 

Romero was far from the only director to inject political consciousness into genre filmmaking. In the 1980s, John Carpenter directed a string of beloved genre films—The Thing, Escape From New York, They Live—that reflected his left-leaning sensibilities. More recently, horror has tackled issues like familial trauma and mental health (Ari Aster's Hereditary) and domestic violence (Leigh Whannell's The Invisible Man), shading and sharpening prosaic horrors with genre thrills and chills. And thanks in large part to Jordan Peele, whose Get Out and Us directly overlaid the experience of present-day American racism onto horror tropes, the genre has continued to engage with issues of race and discrimination. Part of what made these movies effective was the balance between genre thrills and social commentary, the way that each enabled and expanded the possibilities of the other. 

As big-budget Hollywood studio filmmaking has drifted away from socially and culturally engaged stories and concepts, except in the most superficial way, modestly budgeted horror movies have become one of the few places where these sorts of ideas are consistently explored in popular feature films. Indeed, it is now almost more surprising to see a horror picture that does not attempt some sort of social commentary; it is only a little bit of an overstatement to say that horror has become Hollywood's op-ed page.

Which brings us to Antebellum. The debut feature from filmmakers Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, which recently debuted on video-on-demand, Antebellum is social horror movie that offers neither scares nor ideas. Instead, it's a one-note, one-twist concept in search of a story. 

The film begins with a William Faulkner quote—"The past is never dead. It's not even past."—then opens onto a plantation run by Confederate soldiers where slaves are beaten, raped, and forced to perform punishing work in total silence. The central character is a slave, played by Janelle Monáe, who is plotting some sort of escape. But there's little in the way of narrative momentum or character development until the story eventually appears to shift gears. 

Once again, we meet Monáe, but this time she's a successful contemporary author who goes on television to debate racial justice, gives TED Talk–style lectures to packed rooms, and casually works references to intersectionality into conversations. Obviously, there's a connection between the slave played by Monáe on the plantation and the author played by Monáe in the present day, a spiritual or metaphorical link between plantation-era slavery and the black lives of today. 

To explain that link, however, would be to spoil the film's big twist, which—spoiler alert—is exactly what I'm going to do. 

It turns out that the two Monáes are not connected by spirit or ancestry or anything so metaphorically indirect. Instead, they are literally the same person. The scenes of Monáe as a successful author are actually flashback, at the end of which she is kidnapped by a shadowy cabal led by a stalker played by Jena Malone, then brought to a present slave plantation that is operated for the pleasure of present-day racists, including, it turns out, a sitting U.S. senator. 

That's it. That's the movie. There's barely a story. The characters are paper-thin. The plantation scenes are difficult to watch, and if anything seem designed to capitalize on the very abuses they nominally seek to critique. But they're not tense or frightening, nor even particularly illustrative, as in something like 12 Years a Slave; the scenes of grotesque violence do little to advance either a narrative or the viewer's understanding the world. Monáe's author character, meanwhile, has little to do except deliver pat mini-monologues about racial justice.

At every turn, Antebellum is flat, unpleasant, and empty. The entire film is just a delivery system for a twist whose entire unsubtle point could have been made in the space of a tweet. It's Faulkner's quote with handclap emojis. 

Fair enough, you might say: Racism's legacy is neither subtle nor thrilling, but an omnipresent and awful reality. It's not made for entertainment. But a movie, especially a horror movie, isn't reality, and it has to give viewers a reason to want to watch. The most successful genre filmmakers take reality and recast it, shaping it into something else—a story, an idea, a parable, a portrait of a particular person. Romero's zombie films were visceral, white-knuckle affairs with sympathetic characters; Get Out escalates into a terrifying escape scenario; The Invisible Man draws viewers into a tense, high-stakes cycle of abuse and revenge. All of these films had thrills and ideas in balance, each working to prop up the other. Antebellum has neither enough ideas for an op-ed nor enough scares for a horror movie. It's an empty twist in search of grander meaning. 

Directors Bush and Renz have described themselves as activist filmmakers dedicated to advancing social causes. But no amount of activism can save such shoddy, underdeveloped material—and from the looks of Antebellum, their activism has clouded their filmmaking judgment. There are no zombies to be found in their film, but politics seems to have eaten their brains. 

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77 responses to “Antebellum Is Empty Social Commentary Disguised as a Horror Movie

  1. I thought it was a country music group forced to change its name by butthurt SJWs.

    1. More of a “country” music group.

      1. “Music” group

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    2. And stealing their new name from a black singer

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  2. Anyone that describes themselves as an activist anything should automatically be treated as the do nothing know nothing retards they are

    1. Or just drop the second word.

      “I’m an activist filmmaker.”

      Horseshit. You’re an activist, period. You just happen to make films when you’re not on Twitter screeching about nothing.

      1. “I’m an activist filmmaker.”

        You’re a bitch who went to film school instead of taking that tuition money and making a movie.

        1. Also, you’re a delusional idealist that prefers to make “films” that nobody will pay to watch. But you probably expect society to support you.

          1. NEA supports that cowboy poetry festival in Harry Reid land so why not?

  3. Sounds like another sorry hollywood disaster. They should just make films based on comic books for the chinese market.

    1. Supermao?

      1. Wonder Wumao.

        1. Super-Pooh!

          1. Batsandwich Man?

  4. Should have called it a “spoiler” alert. Jesus Christ, there’s not even enough here to make a Twilight Zone episode.

  5. I’ve had enough with movies about slavery. Hollywood should start making movies about the worst event in human history, the Shoah (Holocaust). Many American youths (especially urban youths) are completely ignorant of the Holocaust and its importance in American history! Hollywood needs to step up to the plate, embrace diversity and inclusion, and hire Jewish directors to represent oppressed minorities.

    1. I know you’re parody, but really?

      1. There was a poll out a few days ago regarding the ignorance of Americans about world events, specifically the Holocaust. I think the ADL also pushes mandatory Holocaust education at the state level. I’m surprised no libertarian leaning politicians promote mandatory history lessons about Communism – take your pick of the Holodomor, Stalin’s show trials and purges, Chinese Great Leap Forward, or the Khmer Rouge’s Year Zero. Did I miss anything else that should be covered?

        1. The likelihood of a libertarian politician getting any of that passed?

        2. Trying to use the authoritarian and socialist school system to teach about the horrors of authoritarian socialism? Like that wouldn’t end with kids being forced to sing hymns of praise to Stalin.

          1. Joeseph Vissarionovich Stalin! Mmm, mmm, mmm!

        3. How about the 10,000 years of prior human history, when almost all people were slaves, subjects, or otherwise truly under the thumb of some kind of ruthless monarch, clergy, or other elite dictator?

      2. “I know you’re parody, but really?

        No, he’s for real.

        The parodist is Harvey Rabbit Weinstein

    2. The Pianist and Schindler’s List.

      1. The Devil’s Arithmetic, but mostly because Kirsten Dunst was in it.

  6. Wait, The Thing was social commentary? What the fuck was it saying?

    They Live was pretty blatant with its anti-capitalist screed which makes it easy to ignore, though.

    1. The whole story was rife with projection IMO. NOTLD is a parable against racism? WTF? There’s like 2 min. of dialogue about the protagonist’s race and that’s it. It’s not like they were going to lynch the guy and he ends up saving them all. At the end of the movie (spoiler alert) he gets gunned down by virtue of the fact that he’s a moving body behind a window. Similar with Get Out, the first half of the movie pretty much just echos current racial tensions but about 3/4 of the way in, the motivating bad guy basically says race has nothing to do with what’s happening and, from there on, any racial commentary is relegated to comic relief.

      Suderman’s projecting with enough lumens to make pretty much any home theater buff jealous.

    2. The irony is that They Live’s anti-consoooooooooomerist message was probably more applicable to today than it was back then, and the mass media critique has aged particularly well–just not in the direction that Carpenter thought it would go.

      1. I don’t think Carpenter is as leftist as Hollywood likes to believe…

        1. Neither was Snake Blisken.

    3. It was saying that Republican Senators literally want to put Blacks on a plantation, and treat them even worse than slaves were really treated. She should have known it was a trap though — Confederate soldiers were very generally too poor to afford slaves.

    4. The thing was the greatest PSA about why you don’t take in a stray dog.

  7. Does it feature a strong female lead?

    1. Apparently not that strong, if she got kidnapped and made a slave…

      1. That’s just the modern heroine trope: a strong, independent woman who is also a victim.

        1. I placed this on my “to watch” list right after every Merle Streep/Julia Roberts movie, especially the ones where Julia plays a whore.

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  8. The Thing is a brilliant film with real horror value and it was terrifying the first time I watched it as a kid. It also has relevance today as an allegory of how easy it is to inflict collateral damage when faced with a internal enemy bent on the destruction that uses the rest of the group as camouflage. Factions form, unfounded accusations are cast and eventually the whole group is destroyed in an effort to ensure the ‘other’ doesn’t survive.

    I wonder if there is anything in the news that is comparable.

    1. Maybe.
      Especially since we have literal, not figurative, zombie hordes running around

    2. This is a common trope, though, right? Most monster movies end up with some flavor of “We have met the monster, and he is us!”

      1. Most monster movies end up with some flavor of “We have met the monster, and he is us!”

        That is one of the best aspects of The Thing. The ‘other’ really is ‘not us’. It really highlights the ‘we are not the monster, but what we are willing to do to get rid of the monster might make us as bad or worse than the monster’.

        Again, seems like it might be relevant today.

  9. But is it as lacking in any point as the far more popular, but just as vapid, Enola Holmes?

    Not that it was bad, I guess, but the ending made me question if there was any actual point or if it only existed as a prelude to a second film that does have a point.

    I can definitely see why the Arthur Conan Doyle estate sued them over Sherlock. When has he ever been a clean-cut dandy?

    1. *headdesk*

      (I had, heretofore, heard nothing of ‘Enola Holmes’.)

      1. Just another vapid “Girlz Rooole!” sperg-fest, if the trailer was any indication.

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  11. Antebellum Is Empty Social Commentary Disguised as a Horror Movie

    A sure fire Oscar winner, IOW.

    1. So, the movie is based on the claims that Mitt Romney would literally put black people back in chains.

      1. The guy put a dog on the roof the car. After that, black people in chains is a given.

        (even if the dog probably loved it)

      2. Binders full of black people

  12. 1. Masturbatory material for millions of millennial morons;

    2. Cultural signaling to prepare the morons to accept raced based redistributionist schemes in the name of social justice;

    3. The only type of movie that can be produced these days and still be eligible for an award, receipt of which will be determined exclusively upon the racial composition of the cast and whether or not it adequately satisfies conditions 1 and 2, above.

  13. For decades, horror movies have been vehicles for social commentary.

    Portions of Evil Dead were a commentary on radical feminism.

    1. Portions of Evil Dead were a commentary on radical feminism.

      Seriously? The part with the tree?

      1. Well it did turn her into a demonic man-hater.

  14. Hoping for the best after Ron Paul had a stroke during a live stream.

  15. time is a bow-tie noodle. check.

  16. Invasion of the Body Snatchers is the only horror movie with a message we need right now.

  17. Wouldn’t that make it postbellum then?

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  21. “…if anything seem designed to capitalize on the very abuses they nominally seek to critique.”

    So, Cuties.

  22. “and domestic violence (Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man),” Meh. If you want to watch a scary film about domestic violence, you should watch “Abused by my Girlfriend”. Jordan Worth is scarier than anything Leigh Whannell could write.

    1. Torture Porn was always a more boring version of slashers.

    2. Why the hell reason publish films reviews? I was happy not paying any attention in the idiocy that “The Invisible Man” sounds.

    3. Ok, I just read Kurt Loder’s review of this film. It sounds really stupid. I think I will skip this nonsense of a film and read H.G. Wells’ book. (And, again, if you want to see a good film about domestic violence, “Abused by my Girlfriend” is way better than this.) Also, Loder has a bad taste in films.

  23. It’s a shame the producers ofCleopatra never got around to an intersectionality epic

    https://vvattsupwiththat.blogspot.com/2020/09/critical-climate-theory-makes-turn-from.html

  24. I liked ‘Invaders from Mars’ as possibly the best Cold War themed Sci Fi movie of the 1950’s.

  25. Funny, I always saw They Live as more of a libertarian (small L) movie than an anti-capitalist one. Sure, one of the hidden, subliminal signs urges people to CONSUME, (i.e., be consumerists to prop up the economy) but as a whole, the brainwashing messages are urging everyone toward a passive, non-individualist, non-questioning collective that rejects any independent thought. The disguised creatures who rule over the brain dead, consumerist masses are more likely agents of the state (they all work together) than corporate leaders (who would tend to compete against one another). But that’s just me.

    In any case, count me out of seeing this movie, even if it was free. For starters, I absolutely hate movies with torture scenes. I don’t mind graphic violence per se, but I like the antagonists to be somewhat equally matched, not one character with all the power and no chance of losing and the other completely helpless and incapable of defending themselves.

    I also long the time when Hollywood didn’t presume the entire audience is so moronic that any message will be lost on them unless it is made completely obvious and repeated throughout the entire movie. Make something that is free of entertainment and insults my intelligence and you won’t get me to waste two hours of my life on it, much less pay you for my time.

  26. “Antebellum” has aspirations of mind-blowing narrative complexity along the lines of an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but instead leaves you stunned in a WTF-did-I-just-watch sort of daze. And not in an enjoyable way, as in the committed craziness of “Serenity,” for example.
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  27. …a present slave plantation that is operated for the pleasure of present-day racists, including, it turns out, a sitting U.S. senator.

    Robert Byrd?

  28. It was okay in my opinion.

    It definitely was an exploitation film that really went overboard with how much they showed. There was no sense in the violence it was just “oh well it happened in that time so we’re gonna show it here”….they really could’ve used a better story/maybe something to say.
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