'Antebellum': Film Review

Antebellum - Publicity Still 2 - H 2020
More interested in making a point than digging deep.

Janelle Monáe plays a dual role as a sexually abused slave and a present-day writer in Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz's horror thriller.

Three years after the runaway success of Get Out, directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz have followed in Jordan Peele’s footsteps with another allegorical social thriller about the state of race relations in America. Much like the earlier film, Antebellum is a feature directorial debut that takes a big swing. But instead of just making reference to slavery, Bush and Renz have constructed a film that appears to take place in that painful past and our present simultaneously. Too bad the result is shallow, more interested in making a Big Point than digging meaningfully into its subject.

Because of the widely buzzed-about trailer, many viewers have been expecting Antebellum to be a story akin to Octavia Butler’s seminal 1979 time-travel/slave-narrative novel Kindred. However, the truth is that the new movie rather takes its cues — character archetypes, plot beats, etc. — from recent slavery films like Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave and Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. Antebellum functions mostly as a B-side to Get Out, covering the same themes with more brutality and much less nuance.

Late in the film, our heroine Veronica (a compelling Janelle Monáe) remarks that her grandmother once told her: “Our ancestors haunt our dreams.” The notion echoes the William Faulkner quote that begins the film: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This language evokes the version of Antebellum teased in the trailer: a time-bending horror story that connects America’s history as a country built on slavery with the present moment of cultural unrest and racial injustice. But these words have a much more literal meaning here than the film initially lets on.

A spoiler-free synopsis of Antebellum essentially boils down to the following: The film follows two Veronicas — one an outspoken, successful, present-day advocate for racial and gender equality (she’s promoting her book, Shedding the Coping Persona, a text for Black women encouraging them to harness their power and raise their voices), the other a slave enduring countless hours of back-breaking labor, physical abuse and sexual assault. In one scene, we see Veronica putting a conservative pundit in their place; in another, she’s being whipped with a belt and told her name is Eden. The juxtaposition is jarring, giving viewers the feeling of being jerked painfully in two different directions.

Each environment has its own cast of characters, with only Veronica and a mysterious woman named Elizabeth (Jena Malone) appearing in both. Elizabeth is one of the film’s many villains, but her particular brand of racism will be familiar to any Black person in America. In an early scene she tells the present-day Veronica how “articulate” she sounds and provides a second back-handed compliment by slyly admiring Veronica’s red lipstick during a FaceTime call. As soon as she hangs up, Veronica angrily wipes the lipstick off of her mouth. For history buffs, it will be obvious what Elizabeth was getting at.

In other scenes featuring professional, present-day Veronica, Gabourey Sidibe shines as Dawn, a successful relationship guru with great style and boundless confidence. Sidibe serves as the film’s much-needed comic relief, her character challenging casual racism and micro-aggressions with an active credit card and a smile. Marque Richardson and London Boyce are also charming as Veronica’s husband and daughter, respectively. Unfortunately, neither is onscreen very long, as the film’s primary focus is the slavery-set scenes.

Oddly, none of the slaves on the plantation are particularly fleshed-out as characters, including Veronica. (The film never even tells us how long she or anyone around her has been there.) Antebellum begins with an escape attempt by a group including Veronica and her friend Eli (Tongayi Chirisa), leading to the murder of a nameless slave woman by gunshot. After the bloodshed, Eli remarks that they must try again, but his character disappears for a long stretch before that happens.

The film instead devotes its time to focusing on Veronica being raped repeatedly by the nameless owner of the plantation, played with creepy accuracy by Eric Lange. Jack Huston is similarly terrifying as the overseer Captain Jasper, who torments a newly acquired pregnant slave named Julia (played heartbreakingly by Kiersey Clemons).

By crafting its narrative around female slaves, Antebellum becomes one of the first horror films to focus on the sexual assault Black women suffered on plantations. And yet that distinction seems almost accidental given how casually rape is presented in the film, and how little thought the film’s makers seem to have put in to examining the relevant themes. We do not get to know Veronica as a sexual assault survivor, nor are the implications of collective ancestral sexual trauma on Black women of today persuasively explored.

Instead, Antebellum goes for a third-act twist of M. Night Shyamalan proportions that threatens to swallow the movie whole, devouring any sense of subtlety and shading in order to drop an anvil of obvious social commentary. The editing is tight, and there’s an excitingly staged chase scene near the end — with Monáe and Malone both on horses — but the film is mostly visually flat.

In the end, Antebellum is undone by a lack of empathy and emotion. It has no real perspective on the past and thus fails to make any real impact on the present.

Distributor: Lionsgate (On-demand platforms)
Production companies: QC Entertainment, Bush+Renz
Cast: Janelle Monáe, Jena Malone, Jack Huston, Eric Lange, Kiersey Clemons, Gabourey Sidibe, Marque Richardson, Tongayi Chirisa, Robert Aramayo, Lily Cowles, London Boyce
Director: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Screenwriter: Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Producers: Raymond Mansfield, Sean McKittrick, Zev Forman, Lezlie Wills, Gerard Bush, Christopher Renz
Executive producers: Kenny Mac, Alex G. Scott
Director of photography: Pedro Luque
Production designer: Jeremy Woodward
Costume designer: Mary Zophres
Editor: John Axelrad
Music: Nate "Rocket" Wonder, Roman GianArthur Irvin
Casting director: Laray Mayfield
Rated R, 106 minutes