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A Living Nightmare

The horrors of slavery in America return in Antebellum, an audacious thriller that revives thorny questions of how to portray the past

In one of the most famous shots in film history, Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) walks desperately through the carnage of the Civil War in an Atlanta depot searching for Dr. Meade (Harry Davenport). The camera, focused on Scarlett, pulls back farther and farther to reveal an endless landscape of human slaughter. Confederate soldiers lie dead or dying, groaning in misery, as Scarlett traipses through them. Medics carry wounded soldiers through the depot, and then a tattered Confederate battle flag creeps into the frame from the left, waving over the destruction.

It’s such a memorable punctuation to Fleming’s Lost Cause drama that Spike Lee used the scene in the overture to BlacKkKlansman, his 2018 film about a black police officer who works undercover to foil the Ku Klux Klan. It was a nod to the lasting impact that Gone with the Wind (1939) has had ever since its initial release in shaping how Americans think about race, the Civil War, the institution of slavery, and the Confederacy, and to the cinematic mythology that has simultaneously shaped and reflected such attitudes. Gone with the Wind and The Birth of a Nation (1915) remain two of the most influential American motion pictures of the 20th century, and anti-racist filmmakers like Lee have been fighting against their iconographic headwind ever since. During a 2018 tribute to his work at SFFILM, Lee observed, “We were taught about D.W. Griffith being the father of cinema, all the innovative things he’d done in cinema that had never been done before, but that’s all we were taught. The social and political impact of the films was not taught.”

Now there’s a new film that once again aims to challenge Gone with the Wind and its legacy as a propaganda film for slavery. In Antebellum, writer-directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz tell the horror story of a modern-day academic who is kidnapped and held captive at a Louisiana plantation in an extended live-action role-playing nightmare come true. Making their goal explicit, beyond the plantation setting, Bush and Renz insisted on using the same camera lenses that were used to shoot Gone with the Wind.

Antebellum stars singer/actress Janelle Monáe as an accomplished anti-racist professor, writer, and activist named Veronica, who holds degrees from Spelman and Columbia. Veronica, who’s authored a book called Shedding the Coping Persona: The Metamorphosis of a Revolution, attends an academic conference where she’s a keynote speaker. Following a dinner with friends, she’s stolen away in the night after getting into a car that she assumes is the Uber she requested. Her friends, relatives, and the world at large assume she’s either missing or dead.

Antebellum (Courtesy of Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

Veronica finds herself dropped straight into a vision of hell: a pocket of Louisiana where the South has risen again, and where modern white supremacists don period garb and operate a secret “reformer plantation,” a bit like a Confederate Westworld. All of the black kidnapping victims there are similar to Veronica: well-to-do, uppity blacks who threaten the neo-Confederates’ desired social order. And so they are punished. They’re forced to pick cotton so it can be burned before their eyes. They are whipped and mauled and tortured and raped and hunted with dogs. When one captive tries to run away, the neo-Confedarates capture and murder her. Another woman, unable to see any end in sight to her misery, hangs herself in her cabin.

Antebellum opens with an establishing shot that’s just as ambitious as the one Fleming crafted for Gone with the Wind. Bush and Renz slowly pan to reveal a plantation in all its vastness. The Stars and Bars flap over the grounds, and we follow an enslaved woman who’s trying to run away. There’s no indication that the film is set in modern America; it looks like another historical drama, like 12 Years a Slave or The Birth of a Nation or Harriet or Roots, save for one or two anachronistic details that history buffs may spot. The plantation appears to be a cushy encampment for Confederate soldiers and officers, and so invites the question: where exactly is the war? Later, it becomes clear. The war has been over for some 150 years, and the plantation is populated by white men who would like to resurrect it.

It’s not hard to see what might have attracted Monáe to the starring role after supporting turns in Moonlight, Hidden Figures, and Harriet. She’s an accomplished world-builder in her own right, who appears throughout her albums as an android character named Cindi Mayweather who resides in a postmodern space called Metropolis. Monáe’s sonic worlds are heavily influenced by black science fiction and Afrofuturism. Likewise, Antebellum resembles a remix of the Octavia Butler novel Kindred, whose protagonist time-travels back to the 1800s and meets her enslaved ancestors.

But the methods used by Bush and Renz, here making their feature-film debut, are sure to raise questions about the idea of a filmic corrective to the image-laundering of Gone with the Wind that reveals what a horror show the film always was. To do so, they make Antebellum a highly stylized thriller in which a return to slavery and a violent dedication to white supremacy loom as big, bad existential monsters. In the wake of the enormous success of Get Out, perhaps it was inevitable that a studio would option a story that cuts away the multifaceted allegory of Jordan Peele’s masterwork and opts for literal-enslavement-as-horror-story. It is a full swing of the pendulum from allowing the Lost Cause—the belief that the cause of the Confederacy was just and heroic—to continually pervade the popular imagination, as if the plantation could be reduced to a set of Instagram-worthy aesthetics.

Antebellum (Courtesy of Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

Antebellum enters an already established popular American imagination that often views plantations as ahistorical, bloodless sites. The former slave-labor camps that blanket the South have long drawn white couples who coo over their architecture and carpentry, and who marvel at their white picket fences, manicured grounds, and artisanal grandeur. In December 2019, BuzzFeed News published a feature on couples who choose to get married at Southern plantations, willfully ignoring legacies of multiple generations of forced labor, rape, torture, and murder that took place on their grounds. Actors Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds got married at Boone Hall, a South Carolina plantation. She attempted to launch a Southern lifestyle brand in 2014 called “Preserve,” which celebrated the “allure of antebellum,” and faced a backlash for it.

Antebellum, then, straightens our crooked image of slavery and its aftermath, and eventually positions Monáe as a barefoot, hatchet-wielding, digital-era Nat Turner laying waste to her captors. A shot at the end of the film, in which Veronica is rendered in silhouette, is a clear nod to the work of artist Kara Walker. Before she became known for erecting a mammoth sculpture made of sugar at a shuttered Brooklyn Domino sugar refinery, Walker made her name with silhouettes that portray the banal, everyday grotesquerie of slavery. What Bush and Renz are attempting to accomplish falls along a spectrum populated by Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds—films that openly celebrate a horrifying bloodlust, the kind that usually inspires an instinct to shrink away. Instead, Antebellum, Django, and Basterds all run directly toward the violence, giving historical victims an opportunity to revel in revenge. In all three films, fire plays a pivotal role in how the villains reap what they sow (all are barbecued alive). Again, the appeal for Monáe seems clear: “Jane Bond, never Jane Doe/And I Django, never Sambo,” she raps on her 2018 track “Django Jane.”

But the dystopia of Antebellum isn’t an easy watch, any more so than Hulu’s adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, in which the systematic, ghastly degradation of women is so beautifully captured by the cinematography. Even The Handmaid’s Tale can’t avoid a certain appropriative thorniness—not when so many of the vulgarities to which women are subjected in the series can be directly mapped onto the historical treatment of black women in America. In some ways, the Bruce Miller adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel provides the answer to a simple-enough question: what if all women suddenly became niggers? The element that makes it so difficult to turn away from The Handmaid’s Tale—its detailed exploration of the daily drudgery and violence of a theocratic autocracy—is also what makes it so frustrating. Miller’s world-building is so intricate and so exquisite until it comes to imagining what such a world would be like for black, indigenous, and other minority women forced to get pregnant and give birth to children they are not allowed to keep. There, it becomes willfully blinkered. Though the show received early criticism for its neglectful treatment of racial dynamics, it has not improved in subsequent seasons.

This is the speculative oeuvre in which Antebellum exists: sharp, unmistakably high production values combined with a setting and story that cry out for some merciful measure of remove. From the squeaky floors of Veronica’s cabin to the glorious vistas that frame her eventual getaway on horseback, Antebellum is obsessively art-directed. One simply wishes that the story had been considered with just as much meticulous care, particularly when it comes to recreating trauma.

Christopher Renz and Gerard Bush (Photo by Kyle B. Kaplan)

Antebellum is not the first project to imagine a modern-day Confederacy. In 2004, writer-director Kevin Willmott (who co-wrote BlacKkKlansman with Lee) released C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America, a mockumentary about an America in which the South won the Civil War. (Coincidentally, it’s currently available to stream on Hulu.) Willmott structured C.S.A. as a BBC documentary spanning the years from 1865 to the present day. The film is interspersed with commercials for products such as “Sambo X-15” motor oil and “Darky” toothpaste. In the timeline Willmott constructs, President Abraham Lincoln tries to abscond to Canada with Harriet Tubman as his guide after the North loses the Civil War. He tries to disguise himself in blackface, but is captured by Confederates. Lincoln is later released and exiled to Canada. “Dixie” replaces “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the national anthem, and President Jefferson Davis is tasked with uniting North and South by using the tax system to incentivize Northerners to purchase slaves. The long-running television program Cops becomes Runaways. And Gone with the Wind becomes a play called A Northern Wind, a Lost Cause drama for sulky Union sympathizers still living in the C.S.A.

The satirical positioning of C.S.A. provides a psychological buffer that’s absent in Antebellum. For the most part, it’s just ridiculous enough to alleviate some of the gastronomical upset that accompanies revisiting the abuses justified and inflicted by white supremacy. But then, when Willmott addresses the epidemic of lynching in the early 20th century, he uses actual photographs of black victims from the nadir period. The move exposes a cheapness in the intellectual enterprise of satirizing a multi-century Confederate epoch. Disbelief can no longer be suspended, because the viewer is confronted with real cruelty, real horror, and real disfigured corpses.

Perhaps no one has quite captured the challenge inherent to translating chattel slavery into on-screen art as well as the writer Roxane Gay. In a 2017 New York Times op-ed, Gay objected to the announcement of a similarly speculative work, called Confederate, that HBO was planning to develop, calling it—as culture writer Pilot Viruet first did—“slavery fan fiction.” In this particular version of America, the South would have successfully seceded from the Union, and the Mason-Dixon line would have been a demilitarized zone. The project was to be helmed by Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, but the cable network shelved the project after considerable public objection. (Antebellum was scheduled for theatrical release in April from Lionsgate, but like so many other projects, has been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.)

“When I first read about Confederate, however, I felt exhausted, simply because I have long been exhausted by slavery narratives,” Gay wrote. “That’s a personal preference, not a metric by which art should or should not be created . . . My exhaustion with the idea of Confederate is multiplied by the realization that this show is the brainchild of two white men who oversee a show that has few people of color to speak of and where sexual violence is often gratuitous and treated as no big deal. I shudder to imagine the enslaved black body in their creative hands.”

Antebellum (Courtesy of Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)

Gay’s concern was rooted in an important question that is sure to arise again in relation to Antebellum, but which can also be applied when thinking about C.S.A.: how can artists reframe the Lost Cause, the plantation, and Gone with the Wind without replicating the ghoulish on-screen dehumanization of black people endemic to slavery in the process? How can filmmakers engage in playing out fears without creating pornography for virulent racists, especially when it comes to sexual violence? In Antebellum, the cruelty enacted on a character played by Kiersey Clemons is illustrative of this quandary, especially because she’s subjected to even worse cruelty when she detects what she perceives as a modicum of kindness in her rapist. Her appeals to him to recognize their common humanity simply result in heightened, merciless ugliness from him, and the scene is very nearly unwatchable because of it.

Monáe’s Veronica and others are forced to play roles within the re-created plantation; they are subject to murder as punishment for either a) breaking the rules or frame of that game, or b) breaking those roles within slavery. Meanwhile, viewers are thrust into the role of being an audience and consumer for both the movie and the simulation within the movie—which, at different levels, isn’t voluntary or desirable or the same experience for everyone. What may be newly horrifying to some—an awakening—may strike others as an unjustifiably graphic rehashing of history, like opening up barely healed stitches just to smear them with a cocktail of epigenetic contaminants.

Antebellum does not have the distance allowed by the use of allegory in Get Out, nor does it employ the absurdity of C.S.A. As a result, it’s quite likely to raise questions about Bush and Renz’s taste, and the ethics of re-creating 19th-century racialized atrocities and inflicting them upon characters living in 21st-century America. “Those who love us never leave us alone with our grief,” Alice Walker wrote in the introduction to Barracoon, Zora Neale Hurston’s record of one of the last men to survive the Middle Passage. “At the moment they show us our wound, they reveal they have the medicine.”

For Monáe, the medicine was her album Dirty Computer, in which she offers reassurances of a universe that bends toward justice. “You fuck the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down,” she sings on “Screwed.” But Antebellum, short on hope, offers up more violence. Is it enough to vault viewers past the trauma of seeing a woman hang herself when she’s been robbed of every other form of autonomy over her own body? And if Antebellum is too far-fetched to serve as a parable, what’s left? Bush and Renz have declared cinematic war on Victor Fleming. But it’s up to the audience to decide whether anyone truly wins.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated and a contributing editor at Film Comment.