by Wil Walker
Basically: The atrocities of slavery reduced to horror-movie tropes.
When I started watching Antebellum—having never seen a trailer—I instantly began to think about Octavia Butler’s frightening 1979 magnum opus, Kindred, where a Black woman is transported back in time to experience the deep suffering of her enslaved ancestors. But then a cell phone rings. WTF? Ugh.
Antebellum fails on multiple levels, as directors Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz breathe life into a tsunami of violence and abuse: Confederates tie rope around the necks of slaves trying to escape, Confederate soldiers march in torchlight chanting “blood and soil” (referencing the tiki-torch-carrying white supremacist coeds in Charlottesville in 2017), and they brand Eden (Janelle Monáe) with a hot iron. The film feels like a low budget torture/race porn recorded for personal use, mistakenly released by a two-year old pressing random keys hoping to play Balloon Pop™. It’s not quite a horror film, or a satire, or even that much of a thriller. But bits and pieces of all three that never complete each other. Bad. Bad. Worse.
Photo by Matt Kennedy / Lionsgate
I want to believe there was some sort of message in Antebellum. Perhaps “Prejudice is alive and thriving. So much that some white Americans would happily volunteer to play a slave master or a confederate soldier if given the chance.” I mean, that alone adds enough bite to both the premise and the story’s interpretation for the final product to at least be decent. Yet, perhaps the best thing in this film is its production. While that probably sounds pretty harsh, Antebellum sets no low bar here, with a highly inspired use of period fashion and an intense infusion of minimalism with unconventional and perhaps consistently under-realized uses
Antebellum was, in fact, a promising story, however underdeveloped. It presents a conventional idea, offering intriguing dramatic and thematic weight. But while the film’s heart is in the right place, it can’t keep things pumping enough to escape mediocrity as a thriller. In 105 minutes, the directors pretty much focused on dragging out a narrative built around slowly building tension. It meanders along more than it should, and such aimlessness could be forgiven if it weren’t just a mash-up of scenes taken directly from better films.
The acting is mediocre and the script is somehow worse. Jena Malone is Elizabeth, a Southern aristocrat who doesn’t make any kind of real statement until the very end. By then, it’s too late. Gabourey Sidibe’s portrayal of Bridget, “every black female” from any Malcolm D Lee movie, was stereotypically awesome. And as far as Janelle Monáe (Eden/Veronica)? Can we all just agree that she is both a triple threat and a current day national treasure? As Eden she flips from dutiful and obedient slave to sophisticated, always “woke,” intellectual never missing a beat. But to be fair, every scene of Antebellum is packed with talent, however underused.
Photo by Matt Kennedy / Lionsgate
Message to Janelle Monae: Sis, please get yourself a better agent/manager because this was a complete waste of your talent and your time. But still—in case you missed it the first time—it looks really really pretty on screen.
If you’re lucky enough to escape (read: watch the entire thing) this living nightmare disguised as cinema, you might ask: Could a fully functioning slave plantation in a Louisiana national park really exist and nobody notice? I honestly was too exhausted to care. Had Bush and Renz taken a minute to examine the current social and political landscape—where words like “race war”, “police brutality”, and “Trump2020” are normal in everyday conversations—maybe we would have gotten a more defined message. Sadly, the absence of that message combined with other subtle missteps throughout the film ultimately go a long way in overpowering its engagement value until all that’s left is mediocrity.
In the End: Antebellum is like a ghetto version of Inception. But unlike Inception, it falls flat and is uncompelling. Yes, it’s really really pretty to view, it’s just not interesting enough to inspire a second viewing.