A think piece discussing the movies Antebellum, Black Panther, Django Unchained, Get Out, and Us. It compares their reception and portrayal of anti-black racism and black suffering, via the lens of racial trauma and unresolved historical grief.
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The Right to Remain Silent
Black Panther (2018) has been lauded as thrilling, electrifying, and revolutionary. A veritable “epic of operatic proportions.” There were criticisms but with unending good reviews, grossing more than a billion dollars worldwide, and nabbing the first ever superhero movie nomination for the Best Picture award, there’s no denying its success. The story of its titular character, T’Challa, is marked by two things; anti-black racism and personal grief.
Much like the MCU, you may have heard that grief comes in stages; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This concept was popularized by Kübler-Ross’s On Grief and Grieving,1 and even though many – including doctors – have come to see these stages as a rule, the book‘s authors say “they are not stops on some linear timeline . . . Not everyone goes through all of them or in a prescribed order.” When you combine Captain America: Civil War (2016) (T’Challa’s debut movie, where grief is his sole catalyst) and Black Panther (where it motivates both main characters on a personal level), however, T’Challa does go through all stages.
The oppression of all peoples of African descent is the driving force behind the vision of Black Panther’s antagonist, Killmonger. It also drives T’Challa’s arc of bringing change to himself and the nation he rules, for they have the means and the responsibility to aid their brethren in need. That nation, Wakanda, is an Afrofuturistic, idyllic society often described as “what Africa could have been” if not for the interference of colonialism. It’s a refreshing depiction of an Africa that is proud and deeply connected to its cultural roots, wherein nature and tradition permeate all aspects of society. From fashion and architecture, all the way through the most important political events, Wakanda’s techno-prowess fuels a utopian brave new world.
And even outside its text, the movie was praised for what it represents for a black audience:
Race matters in Black Panther and it matters deeply. . . . In its emphasis on black imagination, creation and liberation, the movie becomes an emblem of a past that was denied and a future that feels very present. (New York Times)
Many civil rights pioneers and other trailblazing forebears have received lavish cinematic treatments, in films including Malcolm X, Selma, and Hidden Figures. . . . but Black Panther matters more, because he is our best chance for people of every color to see a black hero. That is its own kind of power. (Time)
Regardless of its laurels, though, there’s ostensibly no racism in this movie about racism.
Agent Ross and the rest of the world assume Wakanda is a poor, primitive country, but that’s not racism, that’s the image Wakanda purposefully projects.
Ulysses Klaue, the first-act antagonist, is from the apartheid nation of South Africa, but he doesn’t represent outsiders plundering resources since he was hired by a black Wakandan to steal them. He doesn’t do it on account of their subjugation, but rather despite their secure position as a military force. And Klaue isn’t even spurred by white supremacism; he distrusts Wakanda because he knows they’re lying and he calls them savages because they branded him on the neck. That’s not racism, that’s a resentful, petty little thief.
The only explicit instances of oppression and racism are a few seconds of CGI models re-enacting colonial slavery and the museum scene, where security follows Killmonger around in what’s initially a case of racial profiling. But all the killing and stealing that follows take the inconspicuous, subtextual racist behavior of the guards and turn it into a reasonable security measure instead.
Honestly, it would be unreasonable to demand a nuanced exploration of complex social systems from a Disney movie, but the bare minimum should be to at least acknowledge the existence of racism in your “definitely political film“ about racism. What we got instead was virtue signaling and utter radio silence.
The Past Is Never Dead
Whereas Black Panther errs on the side of caution, hiding its imaginary racism behind grand speeches, Antebellum (2020) chooses not to explain racism with words, it elicits to show it instead. Very blatantly. All the time.
Antebellum was also on the flip side of reviews relative to Black Panther. Rolling Stone called Black Panther “revolutionary“ and Antebellum a “Revenge Fantasy Gone Sideways.” Polygon deemed Antebellum “2020‘s worst movie“ but hailed Black Panther with “There is pride in seeing so much black excellence in a single film.” The New York Times, the Guardian, the British Film Institute, Roger Ebert. . . . The list goes on and on.
Gauging its reception can be difficult, though. Box offices and reviews should broadly correlate to the general audience and the media respectively, but like many other movies slated to debut in 2020, Antebellum had no US theatrical release. Internationally, Antebellum made $7.8 million, Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) made $2 million the year after, and Harriet (2019) made a $250,000 the year before. So at least by this one particular metric, Antebellum fared better than its immediate competition, even if Judas and Harriet had overall better reviews. Black Panther dwarfs all competition but the MCU tends to have that effect. Three out of four Avengers movies are in the top ten grossing movies of all time, after all.
Not everybody pays attention to reviews, but they help shape the conversation nonetheless. Media in general has that power. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky even posited that the news media goes as far as manufacturing consent to a certain extent.2 Movie reviews perform a minor role in comparison, but they shouldn’t be underestimated. There’s limited research showing they have an observable impact on how consumers perceive a movie and on whether they should spend money on a ticket.3 And there’s also been research into whether reviews affect the bottom line of companies,4 which “demonstrates that TPRs (or third-party product reviews) . . . constitute an impactful factor embedded in the linkage between marketing strategies and firm value. In developing and introducing new products, the opinions of professional critics should not be overlooked.” A string of nonsense words that roughly translates to “yes, reviews affect bottom lines.” So, reviews not only feed talking points to the news media, they also help manufacture a type of financial consent, signaling to the industry what kinds of projects are safe to be associated with.
Looking at these reviews, Black Panther was praised for complex characters, unapologetic black representation, and a thoughtful discussion of racism and politics. Meanwhile, Antebellum was slammed with critiques regarding one-dimensional characters, a lack of social commentary and shallow exploration of its subject matters, a convoluted plot with an outlandish twist, and most pointedly, its gratuitous and exploitative depictions of black suffering.
Polygon, for instance, says that “Antebellum – yet another unnecessary slave movie – rarely feels like a horror flick. Instead, its needless brutality, ropy character work, and misguided twist make it easily 2020’s worst movie so far.” They also explain that twist by saying, “While the trailer teases the idea that Veronica is . . . yanked backward in time to a plantation by scheming white sorcerers, the twist explaining how she awakens in antebellum America isn’t nearly so interesting. Instead, the reveal turns the film’s entire conceit into a disrespectful, cruel mockery of the history it’s exploiting. In the most heavy-handed way, Bush and Renz equate current racial oppression with the horrific crime of forced servitude, and turns the somber history of slavery into a cruel game. And their film’s seeming body horror is just a masked version of ordinary violence.”
And a New York Times review ends by saying that “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.” And whether that’s the case is a reasonable inquiry, but some context is necessary.
2020 was also the year of the George Floyd protests, meaning most were a bit sensitive to this kind of subject, and a movie like this, coming out at the heels of the uprising, could feel disrespectful, if not opportunistic. But Antebellum’s directors, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz, had already gained some prominence years before with activist-type videos and PSAs. “Save the Dream” with the MLK Memorial Foundation, “Canvases of Courage” with Amnesty International, and with the Sankofa social justice organization they had made both “17” and “Against the Wall.” Knowing these filmmakers’ career, it seems unfair – maybe even dishonest, if you’re a professional critic – to accuse them of being opportunistic for doing what they had been doing with a passion for years beforehand.
With that out of the way, it’s time to look at what Antebellum may have been “exploring.” Its story moves between past and present before melding both periods into a single, surreal plotline. The infamous “misguided twist.” And it’s in this dichotomy of tenses, in the liminal space between “is” and “was,” that we find an interweaving representation of historical grief and racial trauma. This may not have been their intent, but it is one way to define what they ended up talking about.
Racial trauma is “a form of race-based stress” that “refers to . . . individuals’ . . . reactions to dangerous events and real or perceived experiences of racial discrimination.”5 It can have symptoms that are similar to other kinds of trauma, such as PTSD, but it is also different in that “racial trauma involves ongoing injuries due to the exposure . . . and reexposure to race-based stress.” And the challenge in healing it lies in the fact that “racial wounds occur . . . on a continuing basis.” This is the second act of Antebellum – the here and now showing a kind of racism that is not only present but ever-present. Like modern systemic racism, racial trauma has its roots in the past, but the heart of its suffering concerns itself primarily with the contemporary pain of the scions. This kind of trauma represents the aggregated psychological effects of a stab wound that never heals because they keep stabbing you over and over again. In the same place. All the time.
And “Disenfranchised grief is grief that persons experience when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged or publicly mourned. . . . Like children of Jewish Holocaust survivors, subsequent generations of American Indians also have a pervasive sense of pain from what happened to their ancestors and incomplete mourning of those losses.”6 An idea echoed by Kestenberg’s concept of transposition, “which she defines as ‘an organization of the self’ transferred along with culture as well as ‘a mechanism, used by a person living in the present and in the past’ which ‘transcends Identification, as it serves the perpetuation of the influence of major historical events through generations.’”
Grief is most often associated with the loss of immediate kin, but it can be expressed with other forms of loss. During 9/11, for example, arguably an entire nation mourned 3,000 people they had no relation to. And historical grief bids descendants to mourn the loss of their ancestors, fallen to acts of great oppression or genocide. It is similar to the clinical condition of complicated grief,7 which “is characterized by intense grief that lasts longer than would be expected according to social norms.” Much like racial trauma, it goes unresolved due to the continuation of that oppression, although, unlike racial trauma, even though its effects are felt in and aggravated by the present, its focus is in the past. Loss is absence and unresolved historical grief is absent grief. It exists in the negative space of racism. A hole that will never fill so long as feelings residing in the past aren’t allowed to be resolved in the present.
These originating circumstances are appropriately introduced in the first act of Antebellum, but the concept wouldn’t be complete without the third act, where past tense loss and present tense grief merge. Whether it came in the form of scheming white sorcerers or larping Proud Boys, a so-called “misguided twist” fundamentally like that of Antebellum was necessary for historical grief to emerge from its narrative.
Going back to Black Panther, this lens can shed more light there as well. The fundamental problem with that movie’s politics might be that it frames its narrative through the perspective of Wakanda. This becomes a problem because Wakandans don’t share in the historical grief and racial trauma that burdens the rest of the world’s black population.
They weren’t colonized, enslaved, segregated, discriminated against, and systematically oppressed to this very day. Theirs is a markedly privileged perspective, closer to that of a white person than that of their own black kin. This privilege is reinforced through the fact that we only ever get the perspective of their ruling class, their royalty. The filmmakers tried to put all of this into the movie’s central conflict, but half the conversation is missing along with the racism that would justify Killmonger’s speeches and evoke sympathy for his cause.
In this light, Black Panther could be analogous to the “myth of the noble savage.”8 An ideology wherein indigenous peoples were perceived and categorized according to Eurocentric ideals. It underpinned many of the justifications for colonialist practices; from the lofty desire to “civilize” the good “Indians,” to the unsavory methods of extermination deployed against the bad ones. “The noble savage binds Indigenous peoples to an impossible standard. The brutal savage, by contrast, becomes the pre-emptive argument for Indigenous failings.” Think of it as a kind of philosophical phrenology that exists within and sustains a system of marginalization based on presupposed, fundamental differences. As Ter Ellingson puts it, “By accepting the challenge to prove or disprove their nobility, we accept the validity of an essentializing distinction of human worth. . . . There is such a thing as nobility, there are such people as savages – and we imagine the absurdity to lie in the juxtaposition of the two rather than in our failure to problematize either.”
Without the presence of explicit racism, the failings of the black community are laid squarely at their feet. This is echoed in the movie’s presumption that arming the black population will invariably lead to a bloody revolution; their predisposition toward violence is a given, there are such people as savages.
The myth can also be found in the shortcomings of Wakandan society. According to John Crawfurd, as relayed by Ter Ellingson, “The conditions which favour, retard, or obstruct the early civilization of man are the physical and intellectual character of the races of man, the character, auspicious or inauspicious, of the localities in which the races are found, . . . as well as the intercommunication of rude tribes with nations that have already made some advance in social progress.” Which is to say, social progress can be attained either through qualities that are inherent to the races of man, through the circumstances of their surroundings, or through more evolved races who would civilize them.
In the case of Wakanda, progress is merely technological and based entirely on access to vibranium. But this is the MCU, where “Tony Stark was able to build [future tech] in a cave. With a box of scraps.” On the social front, their isolationism borders on criminal negligence when you consider the horrors of Nazi Germany or King Leopold’s Congo. Not only that, but they were unable to move beyond hereditary monarchy, with their only mechanism for change being trial by combat rather than democratic vote. And the only change allowed by that mechanism being which noble bloodline gets to rule. Despite their shining towers and flying ships, they are socially and politically stunted. “Unable to rule themselves.” Wakandans are good savages, but they are savages nonetheless.
The framing of the T’Challa/Killmonger dichotomy is also important. A reaction to racism is championed by an antagonist who follows each good argument with murder, acts of war, and/or authoritarianism. The hero, on the other hand, completes his arc with an outreach program that fails to acknowledge systemic racism as the root of the problem it’s trying to solve, for that was never a part of the discussion to begin with. Another dividing characteristic comes from the fact T’Challa would’ve died fighting Killmonger in ritual combat if Zuri, the Jabari, his mother, and his girlfriend hadn’t intervened. That makes Killmonger the lawfully appointed leader of Wakanda and T’Challa’s later victory an armed coup. The hero does in Wakanda what the villain plans to do around the world. In the end, the movie doesn’t even disagree with Killmonger’s methods, just the reasons for which they are used.
The movie only draws sympathy for Killmonger when dealing with his father’s death. Then the framing is different. The scenes are more emotional, the tone is dialed down, and T’Challa agrees wholeheartedly with Killmonger’s plight. Daddy issues are a notorious motif in the MCU. Uncontroversial and easy to sell, it’s used here, intentionally or not, to disguise the movie’s contempt for Killmonger’s cause under a veil of sympathy for his loss. Personal grief is marketable, historical grief is challenging.
License to Kill
Something worth noting about Antebellum is that it’s more of an emotional exercise than an intellectual one. It focuses on how the characters feel rather than the arguments they’d make. The antagonists give rote speeches full of supremacist platitudes, but the strikingly silent black characters mostly respond with bursts of violence and emotion. Insightful arguments are welcome but shouldn’t be required. Racism is just bad. Period.
Like Antebellum, Django Unchained (2012) relies more on an emotional response than intellectual arguments. And like Bush and Renz, Tarantino’s creation features chattel slavery and lurid violence wrapped as revenge porn. Their styles are very distinct, though. From acting to soundtrack, from over-the-top shootings to Samuel L. Jackson being Samuel L. Jackson, everything in Django has that Tarantino touch that makes his movies immediately identifiable.
The thing about this well-received, Oscar-nominated, epic tale revolving around a freed black slave is that Django isn’t the main character. That would be Schultz, who saves, teaches, and sets Django on the right path to finding Broomhilda. He also devises their plan, decides where to go and when, and secures Broomhilda’s “freedom papers.” Django, lacking almost all agency, is more akin to a glorified attaché that doesn’t even kill the main villain – once again, Schultz does. The slave turned hero, for the most part, does what the nice white man tells him to do.
But the crux of this comparison is the subject of violence. This is a brutal experience and that’s part of the appeal. Nobody watches a Tarantino flick for the feels. There’s shooting, punching, biting, lashing, branding, and a whole lot of blood on screen. According to Tarantino himself,
I wasn’t trying to do a Schindler’s List. . . . I wanted the film to be more entertaining than that. . . . There’s two types of violence in this film: There’s the brutal reality that slaves lived under . . . and then there’s the violence of Django’s retribution. And that’s movie violence, and that’s fun and that’s cool, and that’s really enjoyable and kind of what you’re waiting for.
Some of that isn’t “just” violence, though. There is a brazen and startling social component to showing Broomhilda’s face as it’s seared with a red-hot iron, or even her nakedness as she’s unearthed from the “hot box.” The latter is a milder form of punishment in the body horror department, but it does carry an extra measure of phobia-inducing psychological torture. A guttural kind of humiliation that brands in one’s soul the same import as the literal branding of her flesh, which is to say, “I own you.”
Django’s depiction of black suffering is more graphic than anything in Antebellum, but since it’s meant to be entertaining, that is also fleeting. Antebellum, on the other hand, lingers a bit too long on it, and, as Roger Ebert puts it, that “leaves an icky taste in your mouth in its leering, exploitative depiction.” But while Tarantino achieves his goal, his approach does have side effects. The problem is gaze.
“Gaze is a term that describes how viewers engage with visual media.“ It “can be thought of as a dynamic medium bridging the gap between art form and social theory.“ How you choose to show something carries as much meaning as the thing you’re showing. The way you shoot your movie can determine through which perspective we should look at it. And by looking away from the oppressed, you might cede that perspective to the oppressor instead.
DiCaprio’s character is a bit too pretty, a bit too cool, and has a bit too much screen time. The mourning of his death is a bit too humanizing. And the slow-motion bloodhound scene is a bit too imposing. Combined with the dynamic between Schultz and Django, the black characters of this movie arguably become accessories in a story happening between white people. Which oddly resembles real life since Tarantino and Christoph Waltz (Schultz again) were the only ones to win Oscars for this movie, while the only black person to even get nominated was a producer.
An extreme example of this is the anti-neo-Nazi movie American History X, which became well regarded in some neo-Nazi spaces. The message of the movie is clear to most, but the way they portrayed Edward Norton can lead to the exaltation of his character, rather than its vilification. He looks really cool, his speeches are really powerful, and some Nazis love him for it.
Something that may have helped safeguard Django’s explicit, misguided portrayal of black suffering is the setting of actual slavery – in contrast to Antebellum’s facsimile slavery. It inadvertently creates distance between the audience and the subject, depicting the historical traumatic event but not the historical grief of those who survived it. Thus, viewers aren’t forced to contemplate the consequences of the violence they’re consuming or the part they might play in their perpetuation. The past remains buried in the past.
Antebellum keeps its focus on the oppressed – bad guys are often in tight spaces or out of frame, and almost always with very little run time. As such, violence is forefront because that movie is about that violence and its effects. And even though it refrains from the more graphic aspects of that brutality, its plot explicitly makes it a contemporary problem. These are not the sins of our past. This isn’t a movie about what slavery was like. It’s a movie about living with the trauma slavery incurred, and the world that was wrought in its wake. The tense becomes present in the presence of our grief.
The Bellum/Peele Dichotomy
Something else reviews have in common is the habit of comparing Antebellum to the works of Jordan Peele, touting Get Out (2017) and Us’s (2019) plotlines and arguments as sophisticated, unlike the shallow narrative and outlandish twist of Antebellum. But then again, larping Proud Boys whisking black folk away to a cotton plantation may be weird, but interracial brain transplants and cloned, pseudo-Morlocks holding hands across America are arguably more outlandish still.
This inconsistency in opinions may be tied to the same distance between audience and subject that safeguarded Django to some extent. That fantastic procession of revelations so idiosyncratic to Jordan Peele creates a narrative liminal space where meaning can be projected rather than interpreted.
Get Out, for example, has been interpreted as a film “made to show the audience what racially motivated anxiety of being a black person feels like.” Or a film about “‘Nice’ Liberals who are insistent of their non-racism because they admire an abstract ideal of Blackness while not actually engaging [with] any actual Black people.” Or simply a film showing that “Underneath our progress, there is . . . that lingering prejudice and antagonism.” Showing “how potently our history still informs our present.”
Regarding Us, Peele has said, “I have a very clear meaning and commentary I’m trying to strike with this film. . . . I was stricken by the fact that we are in a time where we fear the other. . . . I wanted to suggest that the monster we really need to look at, maybe the evil, is us.” But despite his clear intent, this movie has also been interpreted as an “allegory for the pitfalls of capitalism” and even a study of postmodernism and the role of African American signifiers in a modern cultural landscape.
So it is that such disparity of understanding creates the aforementioned safe distance. It gives the audience carte blanche to see what they want to see and to ignore anything that makes them uncomfortable. It’s an unintended compromise that helps to safeguard these movies from criticism. When it comes to Antebellum, though, all reviewers seem to get that the movie is about modern, violent anti-black racism. They argue whether the creators were earnest or the movie was any good, but regardless of how they might answer these questions, a point has been made and they seem to have gotten it.
In a story barren of insightful arguments, the text is left with a mundane kind of racism. The audience is invited to engage with its message primarily – perhaps exclusively – through the emotional response of its black characters. Historical grief argues through a study of intergenerational systems of racism, but the effects with which it’s concerned are experienced by individuals. People can reason their way around grief, but they experience it on an emotional level. And if Antebellum is an emotional exercise, then what kind of emotion lies at its core?
One hint comes when Veronica says, “We’re expected to be seen, not heard. Or we risk being perceived as threatening to the patriarchy. Or God forbid we continue to be branded as the angry black woman.” Another hint is found in an interview with the directors,
Ukiomogbe: Did you shoot on location?
Bush: We did. We were insistent upon . . . shooting on an actual plantation.
Ukiomogbe: . . . What effect did that have on you over time?
Bush: It made me really angry. . . . It’s a rage that continues to drive you. I don’t know if rage is an especially productive emotion, but that is how it felt.
Antebellum is a very angry movie. It talks about anger, its characters react furiously, and its apotheosis is an exquisite display of rage in all of its cinematographic glory. This celebration of anger stands in direct opposition to all previously mentioned movies. Black Panther reserved its anger to the villain. Django was coolheaded to the point of being cold in the face of oppression. And Get Out, most of all, had its conclusion changed specifically to “counter public anger” with “an ending that . . . ‘gives us a positive feeling when we leave [the] movie.’”
Combining this anger with a lack of that safe distance between art and audience creates what could be generously called a very sensitive statement. The story is fictional, but the issue is real. Chattel slavery is atemporal, but the plot is contemporary. There is one very clear statement being made here: “slavery is present in its modern-day effects, and those effects won’t be past so long as people are allowed to perpetuate today the ideals that justified it back then.” And this movie – and the people who made it – is telling us that they’re very, very angry about that.
Let There Be Wrath
Anger isn’t the right way to grieve because there is no right way to grieve. But indignation is as fundamental to change as hope, and a healthy society should accept that.
Collectively, this is about cultural shifts. About acknowledging the pain of marginalized groups and allowing them to process their feelings, even if that takes a shape as uncomfortable to be around as somebody else’s anger – which, incidentally, includes not berating challenging art. And possibly about getting one step closer to realizing that sometimes, so-called “radical“ responses are the only kind of reasonable response to unreasonable threats.
Personally, this is about being able to say “yes, I agree with you. Things truly are f—ed up. You’re neither crazy nor alone.” It’s about realizing that we need each other now more than ever, and that optimism alone can’t heal the wounds that separate us.
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All images are screenshots provided by the author.
- Kübler-Ross, Elisabeth, and David Kessler. On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. Simon and Schuster, 2005. [↩]
- Herman, Edward, and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. Pantheon, 1988. [↩]
- Pentheny, Jacob R. “The Influence of Movie Reviews on Consumers.” (2015). http://scholars.unh.edu/honors/265) [↩]
- Chen, Yubo, Yong Liu, and Jurui Zhang. “When Do Third-Party Product Reviews Affect Firm Value and What Can Firms Do? The Case of Media Critics and Professional Movie Reviews.” Journal of Marketing 76.2 (2012): 116-134. [↩]
- Comas-Díaz, Lillian, Gordon Nagayama Hall, and Helen A. Neville. “Racial Trauma: Theory, Research, and Healing: Introduction to the Special Issue.” American Psychologist 74.1 (2019): 1. [↩]
- Heart, Brave, and Lemyra M. DeBruyn. “The American Indian Holocaust: Healing Historical Unresolved Grief.” American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research 8.2 (1998): 56-78. [↩]
- Shear, M. Katherine. “Complicated Grief.” New England Journal of Medicine 372.2 (2015): 153-160. [↩]
- Ellingson, Ter. The Myth of the Noble Savage. Univ of California Press, 2001. [↩]