by Nick L’Barrow
Antebellum begins with Eden (Janelle Monae), a black woman living in a horrifying reality – as a slave on a plantation in the southern United States. Her daily life consists of unruly physical labour and witnessing (and sadly being the victim of) horrendous abuse from the plantation’s white staff. However, strange and unexplainable happenings begin to occur, and Eden must quickly solve the mystery of where she really is and escape this living hell.
The writer/director duo of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz bring this hybrid of genre to the big screen (or small screen as a VOD release in the US) – that hybrid being a horror/thriller with a strong social commentary message. This genre has become a lot more prevalent in mainstream cinema over the past 5 years with films like Get Out and Us (both of which share the same producers for this film). When done well, this mix-and-match works to create a terrifying movie experience that also teaches the audience an important lesson or sparks necessary conversation regarding important issues in our society. Unfortunately, Bush and Renz have missed the mark on both accounts with Antebellum, ultimately making an empty narrative that unabashedly beats the audience over the head with its social message.
The main issue is how the story is told. The first act (around 40 minutes of its 100-minute runtime) is all based in the plantation. The audience are consistently shown brutal violence which quickly turns emotionally numbing as it becomes obvious that anytime there is the potential for violence, it will always be shown in its most gory fashion for shock value. There is no threat of implied violence or enough character background for the audience to feel sympathy. This is in no way taking away from the real-life atrocities that occurred during this Civil War era – but as a film being compared to other films that have also tackled this subject matter, Antebellum almost feels exploitive in the way it shows the violence and just expecting the audience to be upset by it without building up our lead characters.
The second act then takes a dramatic shift in tone and genre as we follow Eden in the present day (who is now Veronica Henley – a incredibly successful author and advocate for black women in modern society). Veronica is on a speaking tour and this is where the story comes to almost a complete halt. While there are moments and scenes that are used in the story to signify that racism still exists in the modern day and parallels are drawn to events shown during the first act, the same issue is prevalent of the story not diving deep enough into the character of Veronica.
This act also sees the introduction of arguable one of 2020s most insufferable characters in Gabourey Sibide’s Dawn – Veronica’s assistant and friend. It’s not Sidibe’s performance that was bad, in fact quite the opposite for her, it’s just how the character has been written and placed in the film that makes almost no sense and creates more eye-roll moments than scenes of significance.
Once the film’s reveal comes to light, it becomes obvious that the idea of the film is better on paper than how it was executed on screen. The jarring tone change in act two and the weak nature of its twist make going through the climax an uphill struggle in which the only wish is for this story to just end already.
There are redeeming qualities within Monae’s performance, in which she is ultimately playing a dual role and doing that quiet well. She is a powerful presence on screen and for her first starring role, she solidifies the want to see her in more leading roles in the years to come. The cinematography for most of the film is also stunning. The opening shot of the film is an approximately 6-minute-long one-shot take that immediately draws intrigue to the story. However, these factors don’t save this movie enough to warrant a recommendation.
The message this film is trying to portray is important: racism is awful, it doesn’t belong in our society and it is still prevalent in this modern day. However, the way Antebellum structures its narrative doesn’t allow the audience to become invested in its characters, creating confusion as to what the point of this story really was by the end.