Reviews: “Abducted Audiences: Antebellum (2020) and Problems of Trailers” by B.L. Panther

This piece contains spoilers for the Antebellum trailer and film. It also contains discussions of physical, sexual, and spiritual violence.

Honestly, the best part of Antebellum is the trailer. You get Janelle Monae looking fabulous giving #GirlBoss speeches. Then suddenly, time starts to slip. Creepy white girls appear in elevators. A mysterious conspiracy is afoot. A glitch. We’re back in slave times. “We go tonight.” Intense music. Janelle Monae rides the hell out of a horse and burns down all of slavery. Fade Out. Words: “Coming Soon.” [Thunderous Applause.]

It’s a riveting trailer that brands the film as a beautifully filmed, queer-femme-star-driven, time-twisting, racial horror parable from “the producer of Get Out and Us.” It has a potent aura of political relevancy. It looks like Antebellum has something charged to say about American slavery and white supremacy in 2020 and is going to provide cathartic and bloody escape-ism. 

The film follows Veronica (Janelle Monae), a contemporary liberal feminist who gets abducted and held hostage, beaten, branded, and repeatedly raped in a Civil War reenactment camp. There are other people there. It’s all happening now. She escapes. The End.

The revolution never comes. As the credits roll, Antebellum becomes haunted by its own unfulfilled promises. And in the ectoplasmic residue of this un-settling specter, we can glean a ghostly doppelganger that resembles the unrealized possibilities glimpsed after Reconstruction America before they were brutally murdered by Jim Crow.

A cursory study of Black women’s critical responses to Antebellum on YouTube reveals a high- level discourse and frustration about the trailer that is not present in most print reviews. And in doing so, underscores ideas laid out by media scholars like Jonathan Gray, whose book, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and other Media Paratexts (2010), emphasizes the importance that trailers, promo tours, merchandising, and related films have on our experience of film. 

These things, called paratexts for how they stand alongside a given work (be it film, TV show, novel, etc.), “tell us what to expect, direct our excitement and/or apprehension, and begin to tell us what a text is all about, calling our identification with and interpretation of that text before we have seemingly arrived at it.” The formation of this expectation is what Gray calls “speculative consumption” for how we begin to preemptively digest a film before we see it or even if we never see it.

Yet these women on YouTube go one step further and demonstrate the political problems that need to be addressed if we are to consider paratexts and the responsibilities filmmakers and production companies have to market their films accurately, especially films about Slavery and Black pain. Otherwise, this speculative consumption withers to spectral consumption as audiences slowly realize that the film promised was never going to appear and harden their souls against the brutality being shown to them as entertainment.

As YouTube critic Asiya unleashes in her delightful Let’s talk about Antebellum| Rant “There’s nothing there…There’s nothing. There is the use of slavery.” And what she means is that trailer suggested slavery would be more than mere set dressing. (Ironically, she refers to the film as “a salad with no dressing” when in reality Antebellum is all dressing with no salad, nothing nourishing at all, but she intends to say the film is bland or tasteless and in that she’s most certainly correct.)

Since the film was marketed as from “the producer of Get Out and Us” she and many critics had the impression that, like the films cited, Antebellum would combine horror and critical race theory to make a layered social commentary. Except Antebellum was going to step out from the back and confront racist History directly through an intentionally gendered lens.

Instead, the film is radically different from what was advertised. It’s a superficial slavery film that says little. It’s as if the film itself is under the same law of silence enforced on the slaves in the reenactment camp, unable to say what it truly wants to. Except, given the amount of money behind this film, we know it could have spoken if it wanted to.

In trying to understand how Antebellum profoundly let her down for a video entitled, Antebellum is Disappointing and Here’s Why, Krys of the YouTube critic channel Watching For A Friend suggests “they got shots for the trailer, but didn’t think about how they tie in,” she says through her tearful chuckles. She believed in the hype and the premise of the film so much that the ridiculousness of Antebellum’s under-delivery can only make her laugh. And it’s seeing her delight in the hype, her belief in the film’s idea, and the defeated laughter at her let down that lend credibility to her critique. This movie was made for her yet even she was left wanting.

The trailer gave her everything she’s been craving, “uprising [and] revolution”, but the film delivered confusion and reactionism instead because there are no connections worth entering into. We aren’t privy to Veronica’s relationships to the other victims. Even the relationship with her husband feels cookie cutter. And this is because we spend little in each setting because the film has tunnel vision for its “big” “twist.”

This is best articulated by critical powerhouse Jouelzy in her succinctly titled Antebellum is Not Good. For her, not spending time talking about the reenactment camp and how it functions “does such a disservice because slavery was such an apparatus so when we think about what slavery was, it was a system. It was not just individual white people who owned slaves; it was an entire infrastructure.” 

Having an infrastructure implies connections between parts, yet there is zero sense of connection in all of Antebellum. We have no idea how a camp like this exists, functions, or maintains its cover in the modern day. We have no idea how the judicial system will see these atrocities when the cops arrive as the film ends. If director-boyfriends Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz wanted to make a commentary on slavery in the modern day, these were the spaces to do it.

And what’s worse, we are never privy to the human connections amongst the slaves either. They are just other Black bodies to Veronica and thus to the audience. Even her relationships with her friends and family outside seem one-dimensional. So, audiences are less likely to care about the slaves in the world and feeling unsure as to why they are enduring the physical and sexual violence on screen. 

And narratives only looking at the slave body are part of the system of slavery itself. As University of Virginia professor Lisa Woolfork writes in her eye-opening work Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture (2008), “slavery’s overarching structure of dominance and subordination frequently objectified the slave subject, so much so that even today the slave body receives more critical attention than the slave soul, slave spirit, or other elements of the slave’s emotional life.” When Asiya says Antebellum isn’t “fleshed out,” this is what she means. There are no humans in this film, only bodies. 

Put more directly by MelinaPendulum in Why We Actually Need More Slavery Movies (That Are Not Antebellum), the film is “so in love with its own concept that it participates in dehumanization of every character that is not Veronica.” And in doing so, creates not only an incomplete film, but an incomplete sense of history. Because Veronica is the closest thing to a human with her #GirlBoss-ery, all the other slaves seem weak for not wanting to escape. All too often capitalist society loves the lone individual triumpher, “the spunky slave survivor” in this context, to use Dr. Woolfork’s words. And this is nowhere near half the story of how chattel slavery worked or even how Black life works today.

And the physical frustrations of watching this incomplete story, especially for Black folks for whom this history is genealogy, have to be released. So, they come out in the form of laughter, itchiness, and/or “ranting.” And in doing so, remind us to attend the body watching films, not just the body on screen.

For when the message of a film is shifted from its narrative to its marketing, audiences are abducted under false pretenses. In a way it reenacts the reenactment camp of Antebellum. It’s a false attraction recklessly reenacting known harmful (cinematic) tropes around slavery. As evidenced by the intelligent women cited here, this can split the soul and reaffirm an almost achingly classical DuBoisian double consciousness. They become subject and object, spectacle on screen and in a seat, a funhouse demographic statistic.

Each of these women end their critique by thinking about the different ways the film could have gone. For them, the potential in the trailer, with its promise of a story of revolution, a collective revolution, was never realized. So, they are left thinking about the unfulfilled promises and all the ways they could have been kept.

And this is particularly potent given that the film is about slavery. In our very real history, Black folks from all sides have been given promise after promise of revolution only to have those promises taken back or intentionally squandered. Like Antebellum, Reconstruction in America is incomplete. 

The Reconstruction Period of American history after slavery was an exciting time for Black people, when change seemed possible. But Black subjects and ideas were soon stolen away, segregated, silenced forever, the shame of which will forever haunt in the corners of the American cultural imagination. 

Production companies and other tools in the media machine should well remember that demographics are not destiny. No-body owes their enjoyment. In fact, the best part of Antebellum is actually watching the wholesale rejection of Antebellum. It’s so enjoyable to watch people respect their humanity enough to reject the spectatorship of slavery. And it’s a renewable reminder that the collective revolution is not in the film, it’s in the audience. 

Bibliography:

Jonathan Alan Gray. Show Sold Separately : Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. New York ; London, New York University Press, 2010.

Keeling, Kara. The Witch’s Flight : The Cinematic, the Black Femme, and the Image of Common Sense. Durham, Duke University Press, 2007.

Kimberly Juanita Brown. The Repeating Body Slavery’s Visual Resonance in the Contemporary. Durham Duke Univ. Press, 2015.

Woolfork, Lisa. Embodying American Slavery in Contemporary Culture. Urbana, Ill., University Of Illinois Press, 2009.

About B.L. Panther

B.L. Panther: Folklorist by training, Pisces by nature. They are a frequent contributor at TheSpool.net.