Written and Directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz.
Starring Janelle Monáe, Robert Aramayo, Kiersey Clemons, Jack Huston, Gabourey Sidibe, Eric Lange, Marque Richardson, Lily Cowles, Grace Junot, T.C. Matherne, Tongayi Chirisa, Devyn A. Tyler, Choppy Guillotte, Betsy Borrego, and Jena Malone.
Slaves suffer abuse at the hands of Confederate plantation owners, desperately seeking escape from a horrific place that also doesn’t quite feel right
Antebellum is a tonal disaster from the beginning. Basically, the writing and directing team of Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz (activists and music video creators making their debut feature) employ a bombastic operatic score from Roman GianArthur Irvin and Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder set to a five-minute tracking shot following along with the daily routines of a southern plantation. The music itself is effectively unnerving and easily the best aspect of the movie, with the lengthy scene itself doing a serviceable job of hypnotically easing us into America’s dark past and the Civil War setting. Naturally, it culminates with some brutality against the slaves that is fittingly uncomfortable to watch and sets the mood that these filmmakers are not going to hold back when it comes to depicting ugly history.
Where Antebellum immediately goes wrong is in the assumption that it’s effective to show such violence without characterizing anyone from the slaves to the Confederate soldiers dishing out the pain. For nearly 30 minutes the abuse goes on to a handful of characters, quickly reaching a point of desperately hoping for real characters and a story worth telling to emerge. The only thing there is to go off of is Eden (Janelle Monáe), a mysterious Harriet Tubman-like source of inspiration for some of the other slaves, including a pregnant woman played by Kiersey Clemons. Terrorized and assaulted herself, Eden is apparently the one that should plan a great escape and spark a revolution.
Before any of that begins to make sense in the context of the story, Antebellum shifts to an entirely different set of characters. It’s a second act twist that is all over the marketing material, but better left experienced should anyone still be interested in renting the movie after reading this review (you can find my spoilery thoughts on the second act twist at the end of this review). It’s a much more laid-back atmosphere but not without its own racism. Antebellum snaps into somewhere between comedy and supernatural horror, dropping the ball on both genres before finally settles into genre territory and once again failing.
The greater issue is here is that for roughly 80% of its running time, Antebellum is either torturing Black people or hanging out with a different group of characters while taking its sweet time building to a twist. Admittedly, the mind wanders and comes up with all sorts of possibilities, yet the filmmaking duo here lands on not only a predictable choice, but a boring and wrongheaded one. To be fair, it could have worked if the script had been developing actual characters along the way, but I honestly couldn’t tell you a single thing about anyone other than the very basics defining them.
It’s a concoction of shock value and social activism that feels ripped from Twitter rather than sincere dialogue. The rest of the characters are so paper-thin that it’s an insult to actually call them characters. By the time Antebellum finally reveals its cards all that’s left is some action to consume that, while mildly entertaining, more than anything just serves as a reminder of how much of a mess the movie is. There is an awe-inspiring closing shot, so at the very most it could be said that Antebellum opens and ends great in a literal sense (the production design and music are the only two consistent positives). The other 98% is a mishandled slog rendering Antebellum nearly unwatchable.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Normally I wouldn’t have a specific section for spoilers or even talk about them, but it’s necessary here because it’s a huge chunk that is drastically different from the rest of the experience. The second act reveal is that Janelle Monáe also plays Veronica in the present day, a successful activist with her own writing career and family. This extended stretch sees her doing some public speaking alongside getting some drinks and having a celebratory night with her good friends Sarah (Lily Cowles) and comedic sidekick Dawn (Gabourey Sidibe). It’s never funny and doesn’t expand on the exploration of racism in the past and present in any profound way, overstaying its welcome until the horror elements kick in for the grand revelation.
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com