Jordan Peele has certainly redefined the horror genre over the last few years incorporating social commentary and race relations into his only two big screen genre pieces providing subtle, insightful and creepy instant classics. So when a new movie was announced “from the producer of ‘Get Out’ and ‘Us’” Sean McKittrick (who also produced “Donnie Darko”) a lot of people expected something similar especially since the film’s name was “Antebellum” and it’s trailers contained a clear message commenting on slavery and racism in America. However, this is not a Jordan Peele horror movie (he had nothing to do with the movie). “Antebellum” stars Janelle Monáe as Veronica, an accomplished author and outspoken public figure for black rights, who finds herself captive in a Civil War plantation facing the horrors of America’s past and present racial divide. It’s the kind of movie that tries to accomplish everything Jordan Peele’s pictures have done in the last half-decade but fails miserably, showing how social commentary in horror can go very wrong without a sense of subtlety and insight to back it up.
There’s not a lot I can go into in terms of plot for “Antebellum” because there are numerous twists and turns that I shouldn’t spoil if you want to get the full experience. On the surface though it’s basically meant to be a representation of how the racism that permeated the Civil War has bled into the society we have today. This theme and ones like it have become a huge part of the entertainment industry in recent years with Peele being the most prominent filmmaker in horror to tackle the issue. This movie wants to be like Jordan Peele’s work, but it’s not. Part of the problem is that it doesn’t exactly provide much commentary beyond “slavery and racism are bad”. SHOCKER! We all know that. Anyone who thinks the contrary probably isn’t watching a movie so openly focused on the issue anyway. To it’s credit “Antebellum” pulls few punches showing us the tragic evil of slavery and how bad the practice truly was, but it never has anything unique or interesting to say about it.
That’s not for lack of quality performances through. Janelle Monáe, as always, was perfectly cast as her preaching about racial equality not only fits her character but her as a person. Monáe has long been one of the most eloquent and outspoken African American women in the entertainment industry, so a role like this playing an author who makes a living debating white men who denounce the idea of pervasive racism being an issue is perfectly fitting. Sadly the film does little with Monáe other than making her a figurehead within the film’s larger narrative, a rebel willing to do what needs to be done but also struggling with the hopelessness of a society that wants nothing more than to put her down and keep her quiet. There are other charming performers in the mix including Kiersey Clemons as a woman Victoria meets on the plantation and Gabourey Sibide as Victoria’s best friend who steals the few scenes she’s featured in, but all of them feel wasted in a narrative that plays out at a sluggish pace and always feels like it has something more daring bubbling below the surface that it refuses to completely own.
And that’s really the most frustrating thing about “Antebellum”, it’s safe, simple and boring. The true horror in this film isn’t the idea that racism still exists or the circumstances that lead Victoria to be trapped within a Civil War plantation setting, but the unapologetic visuals of violence against “slaves” that makes the movie simply uncomfortable to watch without giving us any unique ideas to back up such horrid visuals. The white people are evil but there’s nothing about them that helps humanize them or even define who they are beyond being simply horrible racists. Yeah, it is important to remind the world that slavery contained a lot of evils and that there are people in our society today who’d like nothing more than to revisit that time again, but these ideas deserve more complexity and imagination than what we get here. There’s a lack of soul, a lack of control and dedication to the craft that holds this movie back from taking full advantage of what is a pretty inventive and affecting setup once you understand what’s actually happening. I just felt like there was so much wasted potential, far too few actual scares beyond the slavery element, and way too much pandering without ever trying to inspire inward through or self-reflection.
With Jordan Peele changing the landscape of horror over the last five years it’s not surprising that copycats are now starting to arrive, but just because the same producer is attached doesn’t mean the creative team behind the movie are as talented or inspired. This movie, to put it simply, is what a Jordan Peele movie would be like without Peele behind the camera or at the writing desk. The idea it’s based around feels interesting, but the film never goes beyond the concept that “racism is bad” to force any kind of unique reflective thinking. It wastes great talent and an intriguing idea by ignoring the more artistic and subtle elements that could have made this a great film about the pervasiveness of racist ideals. In short, “Antebellum” tries too hard to be what it’s not and not hard enough to be what it should have been making for a slow, boring and scareless horror mess.