Antebellum (2020) was one of the many feature films that got caught in the COVID-19 storm. It was originally slated to be released in April 2020, but in reality came out for streaming in September. I finally got a chance to watch it, and despite the fact that critics mostly have hated it, I found it a compelling watch. Yes, it’s technically a horror movie, but not in the sense of jump scares, and actress Janelle Monáe is a strong lead. The film splits between the 1860s and modern day, and I found Mary Zophres’s costume designs very successful in both periods.
Because the film is based on a bit of a mystery — how are these two periods connected? — I’m going to discuss the costumes specifically, and then discuss the film and plot itself at the end in a specifically labeled spoiler section. I think you’ll enjoy the movie more if you go in NOT knowing the answer to its mysteries, so I strongly suggest you wait to read anything spoiler-y until after you’ve seen it!
… were designed by Mary Zophres, who also designed O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), Catch Me If You Can (2002), Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), True Grit (2010), Hail, Caesar! (2016), Battle of the Sexes (2017), and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018).
The standouts are the modern costumes, for which Monáe wanted to feature Black designers — which makes sense not only because their designs are fabulous, but also because of the themes of the film. Monáe told Insider that she collaborated with Zophres on this:
“She [Zophres] worked hard to figure out how to get local, Black-owned designers to contribute. She went out of her way to make sure that we were highlighting Black designers because this is a film speaking about Black life” (Janelle Monae wanted her ‘Antebellum’ character’s wardrobe to champion Black-owned brands, and the film’s costume designer delivered).
Meanwhile, Zophres told the same publication,
“I was determined because I really felt it was something Janelle’s character would actively pursue and promote. Veronica would help empower Black businesses … I’m hoping that the clothes help tell the story that her life … was one of a very positive influence and a person that promoted being true to oneself. Veronica’s purpose and what she’s doing in her life is helping the race of her people. I wanted to reflect that and I hope her clothes do.”
Monáe wore the work of Black designers that included FKSP, Minku, ZAAF, odAOMO, Ozwald Boateng, and Ivy Park x Adidas — and honestly, they were serious eye candy and the visual highlight of the film:
Of course, Frock Flicks’s focus is on historical costume, and at least half the film is in period dress — mostly clothing worn by the enslaved people and army uniforms, with one upper-class woman.
The opening shot starts with what I assume are those enslaved as domestic workers:
But then we move on to the field slaves, where things are less white/pressed/starched:
I know zero about military uniforms, but there are many Confederate ones:
And then there’s one upper-class lady and her daughter:
Spoiler-y Thoughts on Antebellum‘s Plot
Please, if you haven’t seen this film and think you may want to, DON’T READ THIS UNTIL YOU DO. MAJOR PLOT TWISTS ARE GIVEN AWAY.
Antebellum has a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with the summary review:
“Antebellum fails to connect its images with any meaning, making for a largely unpleasant experience lacking any substantial scares.”
I admit, I’m not much of a review reader, but my brief skim seems to show that most critics felt the same. Note the film also has a 58% audience review rating, and was one of the most-viewed films on streaming for a while.
So why the poor ratings? I feel like many reviewers may have missed what I took to be the point of the movie: I think we tend to think about history’s horrors as, “Well, yes, but that was another time.” Taking truly modern people and putting them into one of history’s horrors to me demonstrated just how horrific the slavery system was. The Black people who were enslaved were similarly real people with real emotions, many of whom were people of status and learning in their communities. Why should slavery be less horrific in 186-whatever than today? Taking a modern, successful, fully actualized woman and putting her into forced labor, beatings, rape, renaming her/removing her identity, etc. is just as horrific today as yesterday or a century or millennia ago.
[Side note, the whole “waaah no substantial scares” — THE WHOLE PREMISE OF THE MOVIE IS FUCKING SCARY. You need a jump scare because BEING BRANDED isn’t scary enough?]
Furthermore, when you cut it down to the core, isn’t the point of racism to be (at least in part), “Get back to your place”? And isn’t the definition of “your place” “where you used to be”? And where did “you” used to be? In the Jim Crow South? Enslaved? Yeah.
And finally, I want to touch on the fact that this film says something about reenactment, something many Frock Flicks readers engage in (I certainly have, although not of this era). WHAT exactly are we reenacting when we chose eras in which horrific things happened? Okay, maybe you can plausibly say “But does that mean we can’t reenact ANY era, ANYWHERE in which something bad happened?” There’s some hair-splitting and grey areas to be explored there. But if you’re reenacting THE CIVIL WAR, and I’m sorry, but especially the South, then this is what you are reenacting. Maybe you’re portraying a camp follower or a soldier, and never portraying plantation life or enslavement. But that’s the society in which your persona would have lived. And that’s the cause and society that your persona is fighting for. Does this mean we shouldn’t thoughtfully explore reenacting such eras? Of course not. But emphasis on thoughtfully.
And yeah, maybe the premise of the film is slightly implausible. But connect the thinking behind the issues it raises, and this is one iteration of where you end up.
Have you seen Antebellum? What did you think about the issues it raises and the costumes?