The 2020 movie, “Antebellum,” directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, immediately gives the viewer the hint of a mystery to come.
It opens with a long unbroken take photographed by cinematographer Pedro Luque Briozzo (using lenses from “Gone with the Wind”), depicting a typical southern plantation — the term antebellum means “before war” — occupied by Confederate soldiers overseeing the Black slaves who work a nearby cotton field. The brutality and intrinsic hate witnessed by one slave in particular, a woman referred to as Eden, is unfortunately not new, but the way this is skillfully unveiled compels us to look deeper.
For what? Well, that’s for the audience to discover, but already for this viewer a number of ideas were already simmering before even pressing play.
Santa Fe-based poet Darryl Lorenzo Wellington put it succinctly in a recent Facebook post. He said, “If you go through this or any Black History month, giving lip service to it, and at the end of the month you can't tell me one new fact of Black American history that you have learned and devoted to memory, then you haven't ‘celebrated’ Black History month in any meaningful sense. Just saying.”
In a way, Bush and Renz have set out to make a movie that attempts to address these kinds of concerns and even puts a Shyamalanian twist on what might be an easily dismissed movie that re-examines more of the same racial conflicts in movies from “19 Years a Slave” and “Harriet” to “Beloved,” “Django Unchained” and many more.
By ‘same’ I mean the kind of visual and emotional shorthand that has evolved by filmmakers who know the audience will recognize certain touchstones they don’t even have to explain anymore. However, this is not what Wellington refers to when asking viewers to learn and devote to memory new facts. These are tropes as common as sticking a feather duster on Johnny Depp’s head to make him look “Indian” rather than probing deeper to understand a complex culture. But, the way they are reshuffled in the deck gives us a different perspective.
The movie (slight spoiler here) isn’t really set in the mid-19th century during that period enjoyed by colonial racists before the Emancipation Proclamation changed the South forever. But, it does involve a Black woman named Veronica Henley (Janelle Monáe), who — in the here and now — is a highly successful author of books that challenge our all-too-common socio-political morass of assumptions about race and gender and economy. Smart and highly aware of her personal power, she is still, like many people of color today, armored to the kind of subtle slights and offenses set like barbs every time she has to deal with certain White waiters, concierges and taxi drivers.
As a hot button celebrity, Veronica is also a target, especially by people who want to teach her an evil lesson.
I won’t go much further into the plot because there are twists you as the viewer need to discover for yourself, but know that despite their gimmicky nature, they are rather artfully handled.
Incidentally, Darryl Wellington, originally from Charleston, South Carolina, has for 20 years written about race, arts, and culture. His journalism has appeared in The Nation, The Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, and The Atlantic, among other publications. Presently, he is a writing fellow at Community Change, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that supports low-income people of color. He will read his one-act play, “Black History Month,” live at 5 p.m. on Zoom Sunday (Feb. 21). It is a dramatic monologue from the point of view of a 14-year-old boy giving a Black history presentation at school. This is a free event. Register at teatroparaguas.org.
“Antebellum” is rated R for disturbing violent content, language, and sexual references. It can seen on Hulu and other online streaming services.
Tempo grade: B+