A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
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What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Antebellum is a horror movie about a Black woman (Janelle Monáe) who is brutally enslaved. As is typical with movies about enslavement, violence is cruel, disturbing, and largely enacted on people of color by White characters. Here, violent acts include beatings, rape, a suicide by hanging, and murder. In one particularly gory scene, characters grievously wound each other with an axe. Some scenes imply more than they show, such as one in which a woman is branded, but viewers never actually see the brand touching her flesh (sizzling noises are heard, however, and a scar is seen later). There's also frequent sexual violence, including a rape scene that shows a man's back moving rhythmically as he grunts before rolling over to sleep beside the woman he assaulted. Language includes "f--king," "f--k," "s--t," "bastard," "ass," "goddamn," and "c--t," as well as racist language like "darkies" and "cracker." Characters drink at parties and gatherings; one drinks from a flask, and it's implied that he has a drinking problem. People of color are at the center of this narrative, and a strong, powerful woman is the hero, but most characterizations are stereotypical and sketchy, so the characters' suffering and challenges don't have as much emotional impact as they might.
What's the story?
ANTEBELLUM stars Janelle Monáe as Eden, an enslaved woman who picks cotton in Southern fields during the Civil War. On this "reform plantation," the enslaved workers are forbidden to speak to one another and are subject to brutal punishment that includes rape, torture, and murder at the hands of harsh Confederate soldiers supervised by Captain Jasper (Jack Huston) and his wife, Elizabeth (Jena Malone). A recent escape attempt has left one of Eden's compatriots dead, but life goes on...in one version of reality, at least.
Is it any good?
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.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about stories that have slavery as a central topic. What movies or TV shows about slavery have you seen? How is Antebellum different from, or similar to, others that explore the subjects of racism and the history of slavery in the United States? Is horror a good genre to explore slavery's impact on the enslaved?
Discuss the violence and racist language in the movie. Are they necessary to the story? Why is it important for viewers to understand the violent nature of slavery? Does exposure to violent media desensitize kids to violence?
Movies often use editing techniques as storytelling devices, like when a camera will cut away after a dramatic scene and then fade in on a different scene, leaving viewers to figure out what happened between these two scenes. When does Antebellum use this device? Does this storytelling method keep viewers in suspense?
Do you consider Eden a role model? Why, or why not? Which characters do you consider to be positive representations? Negative? What role does characters' race play in this story?
- On DVD or streaming: September 18, 2020
- Cast: Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone, Jack Huston
- Directors: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
- Studio: Lionsgate
- Genre: Horror
- Run time: 105 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: disturbing violent content, language, and sexual references
- Last updated: September 17, 2020
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