Film Review – Antebellum
Antebellum (2020) hinges everything on a plot twist so thinly veiled that anyone paying attention can decipher it right away. I’m sure if you think about it hard enough, you’d be able to figure it out without even watching the movie. I don’t know if the ad campaign really thought it to be that much of a secret – the trailer gives it away in a not-so-subtle fashion. The existence of the twist isn’t the big issue, it’s the fact that it is the only thing the production has to offer. It puts all its eggs in one basket. Without the element of surprise, we are left with a brutal, violent story of racism and its rippling effects throughout history.
Is that a theme worth exploring? Absolutely. Slavery is the stain of America, and despite its removal still lingers in modern culture. We see it everywhere from economic inequality, job opportunities, housing, education, the prison system, to law enforcement – the list goes on and on. Black people are no longer held in chains, but they are still subject to a racist culture meant to devalue their self-worth. Turn the TV on and chances are you will find news stations reporting social unrest – a direct result of the systemic racism born during slavery.
I think that was what co-writers/directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz were trying to touch upon when making Antebellum. I’m sure their hearts were in the right place, but the execution falters. The focus lands far too much on the cruelty and ignores character development and a coherent plot. The entire first act is a showcase of abuse, rape, and murder. In one scene, the cinematography (Pedro Luque) goes in extreme slow motion to watch a noose wrap around a person’s neck. Is it important that we understand the ways in which slaves were mistreated? Yes, it is. But it is also important that it be presented in a way that provokes reflection and discussion and not just knee-jerk repulsion, otherwise you’re dealing in straight exploitation.
In her first leading role, Janelle Monáe plays two characters existing in two different time periods. First, she is Eden, a slave living on an expansive southern plantation in the years leading up to the Civil War. The plantation is run by Confederate troops, who patrol the fields looking for any reason to feed their sadistic urges. The opening shot is an extended, unbroken view of the entire property, sweeping through the grounds to show us the beautiful nightmare Eden lives in. Eden – along with the rest of the slaves – is subject to constant punishment, but she’s also the center of attention. She is clearly thinking things over, the gears in her head always moving. A recently captured slave, Julia (Kiersey Clemons) comes to her desperately asking, “What is the plan?”
In the second story, Monáe is Veronica, working in the present as a social advocate, author, and public speaker. Her days are spent juggling the responsibilities of being a wife, mother, and a person of influence. After a recent speaking engagement, Veronica meets up with her friend Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe) for a night out on the town. But their efforts for a good time are hampered by constant racist microaggressions – side looks from strangers, being seated in particular table at a restaurant, backhanded compliments, etc. Veronica tries her best to brush it all off, even when the aggressions become more blatant. Soon they turn to obvious warning signs, and by the time Veronica realizes what’s happening, it might already be too late.
I’m trying my best to be as vague as possible with these descriptions, because diving too deeply will give away the twist (if you haven’t already discovered it). The connection between the past and present is the ultimate failing of Antebellum. In terms of theme I can see how one relates to the other, but in terms of plot structure it crumbles. The narrative relies on such a preposterous reveal that Rod Serling would probably not consider it for an episode of The Twilight Zone. It becomes a distraction. For as good as the visuals are and how gorgeously ominous the score is, all of it is negated by a story too silly to take seriously.
Monáe has given some strong supporting work in recent years, such as Moonlight (2016) and Hidden Figures (2016). With her established position as a musical artist and her undeniable screen charisma, Monáe seems destined for high profile, leading roles. This being her first opportunity, she does the absolute best she can in two roles, trying to provide substance while not having very much to do. While the rest of production may not succeed, it is due to no fault of her own. If anything, this can be used a steppingstone, evidence of Monáe’s skill for bigger and better things.
Antebellum may have started with earnest motivations but betrayed itself by opting for shock and awe instead of significant, thought-provoking drama. It tells us something we already knew and does so in a detestable, off putting way. We come away thinking more of the lurid on screen barbarism than the themes running beneath it.