ANTEBELLUM…and beyond

Spoiler warning for anyone who hasn’t yet seen Antebellum and plans to.

An enslaved Black woman in the Antebellum South hears a cell phone ringing.

A Black man visits his white girlfriend’s family and discovers brain transplants taking place in the house’s basement.

While the mechanisms of storytelling in both Liongate’s 2020 Antebellum and Jordan Peele’s 2017 Get Out were unusual and intriguing, I couldn’t stop wondering, like a tongue probing a sore tooth, why we were taking a ride down this particular road yet again, something I addressed a while ago in a blog called Three Michaels.

In the 1990s movie Sankofa, a beautiful model flounces around during a photo shoot in Ghana amongst the remains of Cape Coast Castle, one of many large commercial forts built on the coast of West Africa by European traders. Originally a center for trade in gold and timber, it later became a bustling hub for the transatlantic slave trade.

In Sankofa, much like the protagonist of Antebellum, the model is mysteriously transported back in time and made to endure plantation life as a slave.

Except that Antebellum Dr. Veronica Henley, married, with one child, hasn’t really gone back in time.  She’s actually a renowned sociologist on a book tour in Louisiana who is drugged, kidnapped, and transported to a Civil War reenactment park where she and other hijacked African Americans are forced into a nightmare of psychotic slave fantasies with an ever-changing cast of cruel, debauched, and murderous white people (including one creepy child).

As says: (Antebellum) mainly focuses on the concept of what would happen if a Black person living in the 21st century woke up one day to find themselves in Southern states during the 19th century.

Okay, but is that a serious question? I mean, what do we think would really happen if Black people living in the 21st century woke up one day to 19th-century plantation life?

To even imagine that modern Americans would resign themselves to such an outrageously insane situation is beyond belief. Yet Antebellum suggests that at least some of the victims were not only resigned but completely hopeless—so much so that a pregnant Black woman actually hangs herself.

Uh…no. Not buying it. Apart from how ferociously a mother-to-be will protect an unborn child. But especially with the promise of escape so close.

Because even though the victims were punished harshly and/or murdered for “trying” to flee, escape appeared to be fairly actionable, considering there weren’t a crapload of “guards” everywhere, everybody seemed to get rip-roaring drunk, sloppy, and lazy at night after a good meal and some traditional raping, and there were NO BARRIERS around the encampment.

No electrified fences, no 20-foot walls. No moats. Super important to keep it period-accurate, I guess.

The idea that any of the kidnapped people would remain there for any length of time–getting raped every night, picking cotton all day long or getting straight up murdered and/or their bodies burned in a crematorium–beyond the few hours it would take for them to wrap their heads around what was going on, rush the guards, and storm out of there seemed like subtle hat-tipping to the myth of Africans rarely putting up a fight.

Which, of course, is patently untrue, as seen in the myriad revolts and rebellions that constantly bloomed among their ranks.

Sankofa is an African word from the Akan tribe in Ghana. The literal translation of the word and the symbol is “it is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind.”

I love the idea of that, because it’s true and real and pure.

Yes, the model in Sankofa probably shouldn’t have been prancing around at Cape Coast Castle as if it were a casino in Las Vegas. No one would go to Treblinka and take white-toothed selfies with the physical ruins symbolic of such untold suffering looming right behind them.

But there’s a fine line between education and awareness and shouldering a burden that never eases or having past circumstances forever dictating one’s identity.

In the news recently, a white and black couple were arguing in a coffee shop over something, and then the white man yelled, “My ancestors owned your ancestors!”

My question is, would he have thought of that insult if it wasn’t an immediate go-to, if it wasn’t the first association that came to mind: Black people=slavery? And is it a go-to because we’re all drowning in a tsunami of history-telling that focuses 90% on Black people’s “victim hood” and 5% on everything else?

With that in mind, one could also take the point of view that the model’s light-heartedness at the start of Sankofa was a manifestation of what any parent wants for their child: a better life. We don’t necessarily need her to “learn a lesson” by going back in time. A little sensitivity training wouldn’t hurt, but she is where her ancestors wanted her to be.

And we certainly don’t need the paint-by-numbers “slave/master” narrative and adolescent fantasies of Antebellum pointlessly grinding salt in the wound. Are we supposed to be happy that, no matter how monstrous they were, she actually burned three men alive? Were the filmmakers striving for Tarantino-like historical revenge porn like Django and Inglourious Basterds?

In the end, I still agree that while it’s “not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind,” I also think, at least in the entertainment realm, that it’s also true that it’s not taboo to loosen our grip on that which is at risk of hindering potential, constricting creativity, and dampening true joy.