There's plenty of terror in being part of a marginalized, brutalized group, and horror is a fantastic medium to explore pain, so why does this well-meaning film ultimately fail to land? Certainly, the characters' lack of specificity is a problem. Monáe is a powerful and compelling actor, and it's certainly creepy that she and her fellow enslaved workers are forbidden to speak -- which also serves as a decent metaphor for how marginalized people are silenced in real life. But although Monáe's expressive face communicates Eden's unending pain and fear, her silence also makes it difficult for her to know who she is and for viewers to connect to her as a person. Most of the other enslaved people don't even have names, which is likely an artistic choice but also makes it difficult to identify which characters are important.
Antebellum's White characters, too, lack humanity in more ways than one. They're unquestionably brutal and abusive, but they're also generically evil. What drives them to do the things they do? Viewers never understand, and though the filmmakers try to remedy that gap with an unintentionally hilarious chunk of exposition that Malone's Elizabeth delivers from horseback under a truly epic awful wig, it still doesn't make much sense. Ultimately, most of Antebellum's running time is taken up in watching the enslavers abuse the enslaved: A woman is dragged by a rope around her neck, a character is branded, women pick cotton under the hot sun in long skirts while men point guns and whisper about what they plan to do to the women at night. It's horrific, true, and hard to watch, but what's the ultimate point of all the suffering? Here it leads to cathartic violence (and, it shouldn't go without saying, some thought-provoking and nicely timed twists), but, without a character arc, it feels empty. And so does Antebellum.