Degraded, once again : Janelle Monae plays lead in a shallow attempt to revisit horrors of slavery :

Who would want to do such a thing? The answer ''Antebellum'' provides is as shallow as anything else : a bunch of evil racists is who, though the particular of their methods and motives are left vague.

That's because the real beneficiaries of Veronica's victimization are the filmmakers themselves, who seem to have reached for easy political relevance without grasping the political implications of what they were doing.

The opening shot - an extended bit of cinematic bravura that takes in the pageantry and cruelty of Louisiana plantation - seems to locate the action in the midst of the Civil War.

Confederate officers circulate among the belles and the enslaved workers; later there will be some boasting about impending victory over the treacherous ''blue bellied'' enemy.

So maybe ''Antebellum'' refers not to the Civil War that already happened., but to one that's maybe on its way. A chilling thought, for sure, and one that a horror movie might help us think.

In the wake of ''Get Out,'' there is still plenty of scariness and satire to be extracted from the toxic matter of American racism, and there is great potential in a movie that connects the microaggressions of the present with the brutality of the past.

''Antebellum'' is emphatically not that movie. Written and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Benz, and propelled by the charisma of Janelle Monae, it lines up  moments of possible insight and impact and messes up just about all of them.

That opening shot, for example, is a demonstration of impressive filmmaking skill tethered to a dubious cause, a slick sign that what follows will be slick, aggressive and muddle-headed. The camera glides through the ground, disclosing decorum, in the front and brutality in the back.

Would-be runaways, including including Mobe Eden, are subjected to savage punishment, tableau of torture and murder that desn't so much depict dehumanization as participate in it.

The Black characters, Eden partly excepted, are mostly nameless and voiceless, forbidden by their masters from speaking to one another. Instead of singing while they work, they are ordered to whistle.

The cotton they spend the day picking is burned when the work is done, a clue that the setting may not be the Old South we're accustomed to seeing onscreen.

This is a place where Black suffering isn't the byproduct of economic arrangements, but rather an organizing principle in its own right. The rapes, the beatings, brandings and killings we witness are happening for fun.

The World Students Society thanks review author A.O.Scott.


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