Janelle Monae, the stylish, high-spirited pop singer and actress, gives a performance of rip-snorting shamelessness in Antebellum. The entire film is her Halloween costume party in which the undeniably pretty celebrity gets to make herself reprehensible, play-acting the horrors of slavery. First she’s seen in slave costume as Eden, beaten and brutalized like it’s 12 Years a Cliché. Then she dons the garb of a high-powered Oprah-esque feminist guru named Veronica Henry, like A Wrinkle in Time-Traveling.
Antebellum is as risible as it is obvious exploitation. Its back-and-forth narrative is a Critical Race Theory bonanza, blending contemporary race-and-gender-awareness with disdain for American history. At age 34, Monae can’t resist the current protest fever, and she’s made it part of her neo-soul, neo-hip-hop act, just in time for Hollywood’s commitment to selling neo-Blaxploitation content.
Conventional showbiz social-consciousness is now the stuff of brazen wokeness. There may never before have been a film that so nakedly revealed a celebrity’s psychological and political confusion as this mind-bending tale, concocted by the producers of Get Out and Us and written and directed by the team of impersonal hacks Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. Antebellum teaches nothing about the Civil War because apparently Bush-Renz and Monae know little about it; yet she gives her energy to the film’s hysterical delusions about the impact that slavery and Reconstruction had on successive generations. That was the true subject of Jonathan Demme’s neglected 1998 masterpiece Beloved, an astonishing adaptation of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize-winning novel. But Monae is of the generation that has skipped Morrison’s insight (and Demme’s vision) in favor of James Baldwin platitudes. Instead, Antebellum confabulates the same hyperbolic agitation seen in Monae’s pop-music videos.
In 2013’s Q.U.E.E.N. — an acronym for “Queer. Untouchables. Emigrants. Excommunicated. Negroid” — Monae sang, “It’s hard to stop rebels that time-travel.” Its arch, TV-commercial concept poisoned the joy of rhythm, rhyme, and fine dressing. The video, directed by Alan Ferguson, set Monae in the future yet featured a typewriter-imprinted manifesto: “We will create and destroy ten art movements in ten years,” Monae promised. Her obsession leads to manic overstatement, the self-justified behavior of performers who feel the need to also identify themselves as “activists” — a cult that includes Q.U.E.E.N.’s co-stars the hip-hop high priestess Erykah Badu and Monae’s labelmate, the red-haired retro-dandy Jidenna Theodore Mobisson.
But Antebellum lacks such unique charismatic personalities. The film’s historical characters are racist white monsters or suffering black victims, and the contemporary characters are stock figures: clueless whites and defensive blacks. Gaborey Sidibe (of Precious) provides comic relief as a bodacious sophisticate representing the new black female parvenu, demolishing any perceived race-gender slight in her path. And there are also two nondescript black males representing masculine futility across time — perhaps an unfortunate residue of Monae’s aggressive-progressive Halloween gender-play.
In this era of woke entertainment, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to discern entertainment from propaganda. Antebellum conflates horror-movie shtick with Black Lives Matter shtick, offering viewers no choice. This aspect of Monae’s time-traveling career design is backward.
Consider: Janelle Monae is not Josephine Baker, the legendary Negro performer who left behind American prejudice to become the toast of European exoticism — the Beyoncé of the Roaring Twenties. Monae epitomizes dime-a-dozen Black Lives Matter types like that program’s sexually disgruntled black female founders whose acrimony is based in deep-seated bitterness, an angry response to not-belonging. Baker made her way out of an enervating world into a different one, but Monae represents a new brand of race celebrity who, no matter how much acclaim and acceptance come her way, operates from a stance of resentment (unlike Kanye West’s singular mode of imaginative defiance).
Monae told a Variety podcast, “I didn’t know if this film [Antebellum] was life imitating art or art imitating life,” adding the usual prattle about “white supremists [sic]” and “systematic oppression.” Her facile political stances are as superficial as her cosmetic ruses and cartoonish costumes. She sings and dances in that narrow space between hip and histrionic — on the verge of moral schizophrenia. That’s the state of mind belonging to race hustlers who stave off the guilt of their success. They feel entitled to it, telling themselves it is for the good of the race, then demanding that the white world bow down to them. And guilt-ridden whites, in both the craven music industry and Hollywood, comply with the neo-blackmail.
Monae’s persecution complex directs everything she does and has ruined her showbiz potential. (She was almost inspiring in Hidden Figures.) It could be a generational thing, or it could also just be an affectation. But the proliferation of rotten movies like Antebellum tells us this repugnant self-righteous pop movement isn’t over yet.